Debate Over Undated Mail Ballots in PA Intensifies Following SCOTUS Decision
HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to vacate a lower court ruling that allowed the counting of undated mail ballots in Pennsylvania.
Whether undated mail ballots can, or should, be counted is a debate that has the Wolf Administration and Republicans split, and now providing their own interpretation on what yesterday's SCOTUS decision- to toss undated ballots- means for November.
“The language is clear in the election code that the ballots need to be dated,” said House Republican Caucus Spokesperson Jason Gottesman. “What this Supreme Court opinion does is now open this up to fresh judicial interpretation,” Gottesman added.
Gottesman says Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling aligns with the state's election code. The now vacated decision was the result of a federal appeals court decision to side with a judicial candidate in Lehigh County. It ruled that ballots without a handwritten date on the outer envelope should still be counted.
Shortly after the Third Circuit's decision, former GOP Senate candidate Dave McCormick filed suit in Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court arguing undated ballots should be counted in his tight race with now Republican nominee, Dr. Mehmet Oz. The court ultimately ruled in McCormick's favor.
Democrats have largely rallied around the Third Circuit and Commonwealth Court decisions, saying that they align with the 1964 Civil Rights Act which states “minor ballot errors” do not deny a vote. They believe tossing out undated ballots hinders voting access and voter rights.
Republicans continue to point to Pennsylvania's election code which requires mail ballots to have a handwritten date on the outer envelope.
“Regardless of any litigation, the election code itself is clear in terms of ballots needing to be dated. That's a plain language statement,” said Gottesman.
In response to the SCOTUS decision, Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman cited McCormick's case in Commonwealth Court and issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon:
“Every county is expected to include undated ballots in their official returns for the Nov. 8 election, consistent with the Department of State’s guidance. That guidance followed the most recent ruling of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court holding that both Pennsylvania and federal law prohibit excluding legal votes because the voter omitted an irrelevant date on the ballot return envelope."
“Today’s order from the U.S. Supreme Court vacating the Third Circuit’s decision on mootness grounds was not based on the merits of the issue and does not affect the prior decision of Commonwealth Court in any way. It provides no justification for counties to exclude ballots based on a minor omission, and we expect that counties will continue to comply with their obligation to count all legal votes.”
For House State Government Committee Chairman, Seth Grove (R-York), Chapman’s statement is an overstep by the administration.
“The Wolf administration has continually relied on the state Supreme Court to alter the state’s election laws and happily followed their rulings when it suits his needs. But when a ruling for the nation’s highest court doesn’t fit his narrative, the administration opts to simply ignore it. This is not how our system of government works,” said Chairman Grove in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “I am calling on Chapman to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Lehigh County case,” he added.
Despite the SCOTUS ruling, Chapman and the Department of State are advising counties to count the ballots.
“It is our expectation that counties follow the guidance and directives issued by the Department,” said Chapman during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
However, Republicans say it's a decision ultimately up to the counties.
"The Department of State’s guidance is just guidance. It's not a mandate. It's up to the counties to decide what they're going to do with counting ballots,” said Gottesman. “We don’t have one state election here in Pennsylvania, we have 67 different ways in which counties have their elections administered,” Gottesman added.
“Under the latest guidelines, each of the state’s 67 counties will decide if problematic ballots will be counted. As we have seen in the past, having different sets of rules for a single race for an elected office that spans at least two counties causes massive problems. This patchwork of how elections are conducted continues to sow problems and doubt in the entire election system. It could be easily rectified if Chapman would simply following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling and issue guidance that counties do the same,” said Grove.
Whether or not the guidance should change will likely be argued through additional litigation in the coming weeks.