Mail-in voting law spurring new tensions over elections

Regional News

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — County officials are reprising their call for fixes to Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law to help them run a smoother election in November, as Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration told counties Tuesday that they must not count mailed-in ballots without the voter’s handwritten date on the envelope.

The counties’ call for action comes amid a partisan stalemate over how to fix shortcomings or gray areas in Pennsylvania’s 2019 expansive mail-in voting law that, for the first time, allowed no-excuse mail-in ballots.

Counties had fruitlessly sought changes last year in hopes of avoiding a drawn-out post-election vote count. One would let counties process mail-in ballots before Election Day, something that the vast majority of states allow.

Republican lawmakers blocked that legislation last fall, despite support from Wolf and Democrats.

Counties also want to move back the deadline to request a mail-in ballot application, from seven days before Election Day to 15 days. Wolf has opposed that in the past, although Republicans support it.

Ultimately, the loser, then-President Donald Trump, tried to exploit the days it took after polls closed to tabulate millions of mail-in ballots to spread baseless conspiracy theories and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.

On Tuesday, a top state election official sided with Republican lawmakers and told counties that voters must sign and date their mail-in ballot envelope for their ballot to be counted.

That message came after Philadelphia and its suburban counties decided to count undated ballots in Pennsylvania’s May 18 primary election.

On Friday, leaders of the state House Republican majority warned that they will seek the removal from office of two Philadelphia election commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir, both Democrats, if they allow undated ballots to be counted.

A legal challenge is also possible in court to stop Philadelphia and the suburban counties — Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery — from counting the undated ballots if election officials there do not change their minds, said Adam Bonin, a lawyer who specializes in election law and often represents Democratic candidates.

Philadelphia and its suburbs, in response, could counter that Pennsylvania’s handwritten date requirement violates federal law that prohibits states from disqualifying ballots for an error that is immaterial to determining whether someone is eligible to vote, Bonin said.

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“Right now, those ballots are being counted, so if someone were to sue the counties to stop them from counting those ballots, I would expect this argument to be raised in response,” Bonin said.

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