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Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail law could be ruled unconstitutional by state Supreme Court

Matt Rourke

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Pennsylvania’s expanded mail-in voting legislation is being considered in the state Supreme Court and could be ruled unconstitutional; the state has received $6.8 million in federal grants to support equitable access to unemployment insurance; and we speak to a dancer in a new local ballet company about efforts to make the industry more equitable and inclusive, and what its like to perform on stage after forming in the middle of the pandemic.

The PA Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Act 77
(0:00 - 6:54)

The state Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn Pennsylvania’s expanded mail-in voting law known as Act 77, which eliminated straight-ticket voting and expanded voting-by-mail opportunities.

The justices heard oral arguments this week on a lawsuit filed by some Republican legislators.

ARepublican Commissioner of Bradford County in northern Pennsylvania and 14 Republican members of the State House brought this lawsuit. Eleven of the house members behind the lawsuit voted to enact the law in 2019.

“Their lawyers indicated, basically, that in retrospect, they decided it was, in fact, unconstitutional,” says Mark Scolforo, a reporter with the Associated Press who has been covering this case.

Scolforo says the plaintiffs are arguing the state constitution lays out specific reasons why a commonwealth resident can vote via absentee ballot, and an expansion of vote-by-mail needs to be enacted through a constitutional amendment.

Scolforo says many Democrats voiced opposition to the lawsuit.

“The Democrats say that the idea is to have as many people vote as possible and especially during the pandemic, the mail-in law demonstrated its popularity and convenience,” says Scolforo. “There are other provisions in the Constitution, basically, that guarantee elections are free and open, basically ensuring the franchise. So, this is a way to further … accomplish that.”

If the court votes that the expansion of mail-in voting was enacted improperly, then the whole law will be thrown out, including the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

A $6.8 million federal grant is meant to help the state better distribute unemployment insurance
(7:02 - 15:17)

Some state representatives grilled Pennsylvania’s Labor and Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier at a budget hearing last week over how the department has handled unemployment compensation claims over the last two years.

Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Pennsylvania was awarded $6.8 million in federal grants for equitable access to the state’s unemployment compensation system.

While the number of new applicants for unemployment compensation is down since the start of the pandemic, there are still some PA residents struggling to get support.

Earlier this month, the number of new applicants for jobless benefits was down to about 10,000, but there are still about 90,000 people waiting for decisions or action on their claims.

“The backlog is still pretty sizable, however, it's only about a sixth of what it was a year ago,” says Susan Dickinson, the Department of Labor and Industry’s Deputy Secretary of Unemployment Insurance.

Dickinson says the department is catching up on addressing existing high volumes of unemployment claims, and is also working to hire enough employees.

The $6.8 million federal grant is intended to help departments make the application for and distribution of unemployment insurance more efficient.

“We're going to use it in different ways, and the most exciting way is we're going to upgrade all of the computers that we currently have at Pennsylvania CareerLinks,” says Dickinson. “We do have unemployment computers there in every CareerLink, but they're old and they don't have the camera needed to do ID verification.”

Dickinson says the grant, over approximately two years, will also help the department hire more people to help residents filing for unemployment at local CareerLink locations.

Confluence Ballet Company dancers stage their first performance
(15:25 - 22:30)

The Confluence Ballet Company was established in 2021, mid-pandemic, and staged its first in-theater performance this past weekend, “Emergence.”

“There were so many emotions on stage, but ultimately a really gratifying experience,” says Indira Cunninghma, a dancer with the company and development director of the organization. “After being away from the stage for so long and sharing that moment with the audience is always so special.”

Cunningham says performing in front of an audience creates a “hum” in the room, where everyone is in the moment together, holding their breath in the same moments.

The show featured four pieces, ranging in style from from romantic, to contemporary.

Cunningham says it felt significant to end with a final piece titled “Resilience.”

“That was a great piece to end with because there were a lot of obstacles starting a company amidst the pandemic and of course, being an arts organization in a nonprofit, a lot of those had to do with financial obstacles,” says Cunningham. “So, the resilience that we displayed throughout this season was really kind of a full-circle moment when we got to perform that piece.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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