After a Lengthy Legal Battle, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court Upheld the State’s Mail Voting Legislation

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled Tuesday that a 2019 law allowing any voter to use mail ballots is constitutional, removing a cloud of uncertainty ahead of the midterm elections.

Before the law, only a tiny fraction of votes (less than 5 percent) were ever cast by mail. However, millions of people have voted by mail in the two years since it was passed.

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The Republican-controlled state legislature and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf worked together to pass the most significant overhaul of Pennsylvania’s voting laws in decades. However, it was implemented in 2020, the first year of the pandemic and the year of a particularly contentious presidential election. State and local elections officials attempted to expand the system as many voters cast ballots by mail, leading to some instances of Republican outrage and lawsuits.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court upheld the Mail Voting Legislation

Then-President Donald Trump fanned the flames by railing against mail voting months before he was defeated by Joe Biden in 2020. Republicans have persisted in their efforts to dismantle Act 77, with some claiming that the law’s implementation has been abused and others spreading false rumors about widespread fraud.

After Tuesday’s decision, the partisan divide over a mail voting law that had been carefully negotiated and trumpeted by both Democrats and Republicans was on full display.

A statement released by Wolf said, “I will continue to advocate for voting reforms that remove barriers and increase access to voting.” The statement came as Democrats and allied groups applauded the court’s decision.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans’ election point person implied that the majority of the court, made up of elected Democrats, was being partisan in its decisions. The Senate Republicans’ spokesperson said the decision “underscores the importance of the actions taken by the General Assembly to strengthen election integrity,” including efforts to add strict voter ID requirements to the state Constitution.

After a Lengthy Legal Battle, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court Upheld the State's Mail Voting Legislation
After a Lengthy Legal Battle, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court Upheld the State’s Mail Voting Legislation

Act 77 resulted from partisan bickering between Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and Republican legislators who controlled funding for new voting machines. Bipartisan negotiations did not begin until 2019.

From the beginning of the legal system, there were questions about its constitutionality.

The Constitution of Pennsylvania outlines the circumstances under which absentee voting is permitted, such as for voters who are physically unable to travel to their polling place or who will be out of town on Election Day. That made it difficult for lawmakers to approve more absentee balloting opportunities. The alternative is the “mail-in” ballot, which is the same as an absentee ballot and was established by Act 77. As a result, there are now two types of mail ballots that serve the same purpose, and in March 2020, lawmakers passed a different bill that further muddied the waters between the two.

In the summer of 2018, a group of Republican legislators and a Republican county commissioner filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that Act 77 violates the state Constitution. They claimed that the state constitution’s guarantee of absentee voting rendered mail voting unconstitutional in all other circumstances.

The requirement that “a voter shall have resided in the election district where he or she shall offer to vote at least 60 days immediately preceding the election” was also a significant point of contention for them.

Republican lawyers argued that two Supreme Court rulings from 1862 and 1924 proved that voters must cast ballots in person unless they met a constitutional exception for absentee voting.

The state Commonwealth Court accepted that argument in January, temporarily nullifying Act 77. After Pennsylvania’s highest court received an appeal from the state, it put a hold on the lower court’s decision and allowed the law to remain in effect pending its review.

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