3rd Circuit To Hear Critical Pennsylvania Mail-in Voting Case

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral argument in a critical lawsuit that could potentially impact thousands of voters who vote by mail in Pennsylvania. 

The 3rd Circuit is hearing a case that was brought by nonpartisan organizations challenging a Pennsylvania regulation that requires counties to reject mail-in ballots that either are missing a date on the outer return envelope or have an “incorrect” date (such as a voter’s birthday instead of the day the envelope was signed).

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the plaintiffs alleged that rejecting ballots with a missing or incorrect date 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.  

Republicans quickly intervened to defend the regulation arguing that private groups and individuals cannot sue under the Materiality Provision and that the date provision is constitutional. 

The court struck down this regulation after finding it violates federal law.

Last November, the court sided with the plaintiffs and struck down this requirement after finding that it does violate the Materiality Provision “Federal law prohibits a state from erecting immaterial roadblocks, such as this, to voting,” the court held. 

The defendants — Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt (R) and all 67 county boards of elections — in this case argued that the date requirement did not impinge on Pennsylvanians’ voting rights because it did not impact the right to vote. The court rejected this argument writing:  “So then under this reasoning, a state requirement that prospective voters write the first stanza of the national anthem on their application to register to vote would violate the Materiality Provision, but a regulation requiring voters to write that stanza at the polling place (or when filling out their mail-in ballot) in order to have their ballot counted would not. This turns the language of the statute on its head.”

This decision was a major victory for voters, especially since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a separate Republican-backed lawsuit upheld the date provision just a week before the 2022 midterms. 

Democrats disproportionately rely on mail-in voting in the Keystone State. In a special election held on Tuesday, Feb 13, that resulted in Democrats retaining control of the state House, Democrats disproportionately voted by mail compared to Republicans. 

Due to rules that require voters to date and sign their ballot’s outer envelope and insert each ballot into an additional secrecy envelope, Pennsylvania rejects mail-in ballots at a staggering rate. After the 2022 midterm elections, data from the secretary of state’s office showed that Democratic ballots accounted for about 68% of the state’s mail-in ballot rejections during the 2022 midterms.The district court’s opinion revealed that “over 7600 mail ballots in the twelve counties were not counted” as a result of this requirement during the 2022 elections. 

Rejection of mail-in ballots often impacts lower income and non-white communities. Reporting from Votebeat found that in Philadelphia specifically, “voters from heavily nonwhite and lower-income communities in Philadelphia are more likely to have their ballots rejected due to simple mistakes.” 

Republicans quickly appealed this major voting rights victory, now the 3rd Circuit is reviewing the case. 

Just ten days after the court struck down Pennsylvania’s date provision, Republicans appealed to the 3rd Circuit and asked the court to pause the decision striking down the provision pending appeal. In December, the 3rd Circuit paused the district court’s order while the district court’s decision is being reviewed. 

In an order to the parties on Thursday, the court told attorneys that oral argument will solely focus on the issue of if the date provision does violate the Materiality Provision of the Civil Rights Act. Now, it will be up to the 3rd Circuit to decide whether or not the date provision will stand ahead of the 2024 elections.  

Learn more about the case here.

Watch oral argument here.