Pennsylvania can discard undated mail-in ballots, US appeals court rules

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday rejected a challenge to a Pennsylvania rule that allowed the state to discard mail-in ballots that arrive on time but in envelopes with missing or incorrect dates written on them by voters.

Voting rights advocates said the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2-1 ruling in favor of Republicans could allow for thousands of ballots to be discarded that are cast by voters in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in the upcoming November presidential election.

Several advocacy groups including the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP had sued in 2022 to challenge a state requirement that counties reject mail-in ballots with a missing or wrong date written on their envelopes.

Litigation over Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot rules was also a feature of the 2020 presidential election in which Republican then-President Donald Trump lost the state to Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Democrats actively used mail-in voting in 2020, helping Biden win the state over Trump by some 80,000 votes. Biden will face Trump again in November’s elections.

In 2022’s midterms, more than 10,000 ballots were discarded in Pennsylvania based on what the voting rights groups said were inconsequential paperwork errors, in violation of a provision of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law, enacted to protect Black and other minority voters, has a “materiality provision” that prohibits denying someone the right to vote just because of an error on paperwork.

A lower-court judge last year agreed the state requirement violated the materiality provision, prompting an appeal by the Republican National Committee and other Republican groups defending the state requirement.

In Wednesday’s ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro, an appointee of Democratic former President Bill Clinton, said the materiality provision only applies when a state is determining who may vote and not to the rules governing how they may do so.

“In other words, its role stops at the door of the voting place,” Ambro wrote in an opinion joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Cindy Chung, an appointee of Democratic President Joe Biden.

U.S. Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz, an appointee of Democratic former President Barack Obama, dissented, saying the ruling would allow Pennsylvania to “toss a ballot cast by a qualified voter based upon mistakes on required paperwork immaterial to determining voter qualifications.”

Ari Savitzky, a lawyer for the voting rights groups at the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement said they “are considering all of our options at this time,” which could include an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The decision was one of several court rulings nationally on Wednesday that could shape upcoming electoral contests. A federal court upheld Florida’s congressional map, rejecting a lawsuit claiming it discriminated against Black voters.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)




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