Thousands of Misdated and Undated Ballots Rejected in Pennsylvania’s 2024 Primary, Court Battles Ensue

Pennsylvania voter Phyllis Sprague, 80, went more than 50 years without missing a presidential election. Leading up to the April 23, 2024 primary, she filled out her mail-in ballot and returned it to the elections office before a scheduled spine surgery. Bucks County received her ballot on time but put it aside due to an “envelope dating error.” There were no other mistakes. 

After Sprague was discharged from the hospital following her surgery, she was notified that her ballot may not be counted. She didn’t want to miss her opportunity to vote, so she got ready to go to her polling place to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day, but she fell and injured herself. She never made it there, and her primary vote was not counted. 

Sprague is one of many voters who had their ballots rejected in Pennsylvania’s 2024 primary election because of a state regulation that mandates undated or misdated ballots can’t be counted. 

It’s all in the numbers.

In Sprague’s county, 287 ballots were rejected because they were undated or incorrectly dated, and only 33 ballots (11%) were cured, according to Bucks County spokesperson James O’Malley.

In other counties, at least a quarter — sometimes over half — of the voters who made these mistakes were able to correct their ballots and send them back in by a certain deadline so they could ultimately still count. 

Some counties don’t have exact numbers for ballots that had incorrect or missing dates, since they just grouped all ballot mistakes into one category.

  • In Delaware County, 149 ballots were undated entirely or incorrectly dated and 55 (37%) were corrected, said James Allen, director of the county’s elections.
  • In Chester County, around 700 ballots were flagged for mistakes and close to 465 (66%) were cured/approved in various processes, county spokesperson Rebecca Brain stated.
  • In Philadelphia County, over 400 ballots were undated or incorrectly dated, and the number of cured ballots isn’t available, according to county spokesperson Michel Lee.
  • In Montgomery County, 661 ballots were rejected for “deficiencies” and around 296 ballots (45%) were corrected, county spokesperson Megan Alt said.
  • In Allegheny County, 1,400 ballots were rejected due to mistakes, mostly missing dates, and more than 800 were returned and corrected, according to county spokesperson Abigail Gardner.

“There’s over a 60% cure rate, which we’re very pleased with because those people are making the effort to vote, and so we want to help them as much as we can to fix any mistakes they would have made that would have disqualified their ballot,” Gardner told Democracy Docket.

Allowing voters to correct their ballots is far from a perfect remedy.

While this solution benefitted plenty of voters, it can still be exclusionary for some — especially people with disabilities and senior citizens.

On May 28, 10 pro-voting groups filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt (R) and both the Philadelphia and Allegheny County Board of Elections, challenging a state law that disqualifies mail-in ballots due to incorrect or missing dates on the outer envelope.

In addition to discussing Sprague’s story in their lawsuit, the groups also included anecdotes from 10 other Pennsylvania voters, many of whom were in their 70s and 80s.

Several individuals — including Allegheny County voter Otis Keasley, 73, and Philadelphia voter Bruce Wiley, 71, — were notified that their mail-in ballots had mistakes after the primary election date. At that point, there was nothing they could do.

Others were notified about the mistakes before Election Day but couldn’t make it back to the polls to correct them on such short notice due to work, travel, family emergencies, mobility issues and other circumstances, according to the lawsuit.

Allen, who runs elections in Delaware County, said that while he tries to make the ballot-curing process as easy as possible for voters, the time-crunch aspect is hard to navigate.

“The difficulty comes when the voter returns the flawed envelope shortly before Election Day. That leaves little, if any, time for that voter to receive notice and then respond, obtain – and return – a replacement ballot,” Allen told Democracy Docket.

This regulation was upheld by multiple courts.

A November 2022 decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and a March 2024 decision from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both upheld the state’s regulation.

The state Supreme Court ruling, issued only a week before the 2022 midterm elections, came from a petition filed by national and state Republicans against Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman (D) and all 67 county boards of elections challenging the ability of counties to count undated and wrongly dated mail-in ballots.

The court ruled that counting these ballots would violate state law and thus directed counties not to count them.

The recent 3rd Circuit decision comes from a lawsuit filed by pro-voting groups on Nov. 4, 2022, just a few days after the state Supreme Court’s decision.

The plaintiffs argued that rejecting ballots with missing or incorrect dates violates the Materiality Provision of the Civil Rights Act — which prevents disenfranchising a voter for a reason that is not material to their eligibility such as a small error or omission — because the date is not consequential in determining if a voter’s ballot was timely cast. Instead, Pennsylvania uses the time the ballot was received and stamped by the county board to determine when the ballot was received.  

In March, the court held that the Materiality Provision only applies when the state determines who may vote, but does not extend to rules like the date regulation, so the state’s requirement does not violate the Civil Rights Act.

Democrats and pro-voting groups have continued to file lawsuits challenging this regulation.

The lawsuit filed by 10 pro-voting rights groups in May is not the only challenge to the mail-in voting regulation in court.

On Nov. 7, 2022, the Democratic Senatorial and Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and others sued Pennsylvania’s 67 county boards of elections.

The Democrats argued that not counting undated or misdated mail-in ballots violates the Materiality Provision and the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution by placing an undue burden on the right to vote.

On June 7, the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans (PARA) sued the Lancaster County Board of Elections challenging the county’s rejection of multiple mail-in ballots missing the final two digits of the year as wrongly dated.

In 2023, the state redesigned absentee ballot outer envelopes with blank boxes for the month and day followed by “20 _ _” to clear up voter confusion and discourage voters from accidentally writing their birth date.

However, this resulted in several voters forgetting to include the “24” for the year 2024 in the April primary election this year. The Pennsylvania Department of State advised all county boards of elections not to reject these ballots, but PARA alleges that Lancaster County’s board of elections did not follow this guidance.

The results of these cases will have large implications for the 2024 election in Pennsylvania.

In any of these cases, if a court rules that undated or misdated ballots can be counted, then a lot of voters can breathe a sigh of relief that a mistake like that won’t disqualify their ballot in the 2024 election. 

But, if the cases aren’t resolved by November or if judges rule in favor of the defendants, then Pennsylvania voters will have to be extra careful to properly date the outer envelope of their ballot correctly. Otherwise, their votes may not be counted in an incredibly consequential presidential election.