WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, in a major victory for Pennsylvania voters, a federal court ruled that Pennsylvania counties must count mail-in ballots that are missing or have an incorrect date on the outer envelope.
This decision stems from a lawsuit by civil rights organizations challenging the state’s date requirement for mail-in ballots, which mandated counties to reject undated mail-in ballots (ballots that are timely cast and valid but missing a date on their outer return envelopes) or wrongly dated mail-in ballots (ballots that are timely cast and valid have an incorrect date on their outer return envelopes).
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.
The court sided with the plaintiffs today 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 effects only the ‘act of voting,’ not the ‘right to vote,’” but the court resoundingly 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 is 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. 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. 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.” Today’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.
With today’s decision, pro-voting groups were successful in ensuring that more voters are not disenfranchised in the future and will prevent voters from being disenfranchised for reasons that are not material to their eligibility.