Vote-by-Mail Under Attack: Act 77 Update
Since its passage in 2019, Act 77, Pennsylvania’s no-excuse vote-by-mail law, has been under constant attack. Even before a single ballot was cast in the 2020 presidential election, the Trump campaign and its supporters were leveling unfounded accusations of voter fraud against voting-by-mail across the country, and specifically in Pennsylvania.
With millions of votes cast by mail since 2020, it’s clear that vote-by-mail is popular with voters. Yet Republican opponents have tried countless tactics to dismantle or even overturn the law. Certain Republican legislators – including some who voted in favor of Act 77 – have been relentless in their attempts to take away this popular mode of voting.
Most of the challenges to vote-by-mail in Pennsylvania have failed. Over and over again, the courts have reaffirmed that mail voting is a legal, safe, and convenient way for Pennsylvania’s voters to cast their ballots. Most recently, this past June, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of preserving vote-by-mail in Bonner v. Chapman. In the case, opponents of voting-by-mail had argued that since another court had ruled Act 77’s provision requiring a handwritten signature on the outer mailing envelope was unenforceable, the whole law should be considered unconstitutional. Thankfully, the Commonwealth Court rejected this argument, leaving mail voting in place.
This case was not the first, nor will it be the last challenge to Act 77’s vote-by-mail provisions. This law has been the target of dozens of lawsuits, and more suits are expected as we move into the 2024 election season. It’s important for those who value free and fair elections to understand the impact these cases can have on a voter’s right and ability to cast a ballot. We need look no further than the 2023 municipal election to understand the danger of these unending attacks. Here are some examples of
Dating mail ballots
Less than a week before the 2023 general election, a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a case involving undated mail ballot envelopes threatened to disenfranchise thousands of Pennsylvania voters.
In Ball v. Chapman, a deadlocked court ruled in a 3-3 decision that counties were to reject ballots with missing or incorrect dates on ballot return envelopes. This decision came after thousands of ballots had already been cast and returned to their county election offices, resulting in many voters being disenfranchised.
Notice and cure
In Pennsylvania, counties may allow voters to fix, or “cure” their ballots before Election Day, but they are not required to do so. This unclear standard means that your opportunity to have your vote count can depend on the county that you live in. In yet another lawsuit, Republican National Committee v. Chapman, the Commonwealth Court ruled and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed that counties could exercise their own judgment over whether to notify voters of a problem and allow them to fix it.
This led to unequal access to the ballot: some voters were notified and allowed to fix their ballots, and some were not. Even with the ability to cure ballots, the sheer number of rejections — due to the ruling being issued right before Election Day — resulted in thousands of voters being disenfranchised.
An analysis of the ballots rejected in Philadelphia revealed that voters of color were disproportionately impacted by rejections due to minor errors like forgetting to handwrite a date on an envelope.
Ballot drop boxes are another flashpoint for this fight for the right to vote by mail, and several lawsuits have threatened to curtail their use. So far, all of them have failed; however – once again – counties are given complete discretion over whether to use ballot drop boxes, leading to unequal access for voters.
Republicans in the state legislature – many of whom voted for Act 77 – have been equally relentless in their attacks on vote-by-mail, even going so far as to invite election conspiracy theorists to promote their anti-drop box rhetoric at public hearings. Two dozen bills were introduced last session to roll-back or eliminate the right to vote-by-mail, and Republicans have reintroduced some of them this session.
Vote-by-mail is a safe, convenient, and popular way for voters to cast their ballots. Election conspiracy theorists and sore losers may try to disrupt our elections and cast doubt on the security of voting by mail, but we have the power as voters to reject those falsehoods. By sharing accurate and reliable information with our families, friends, and neighbors, and urging our lawmakers to support pro-voter legislation, we can make voting easier, safer, and more equitable for all Pennsylvanians.