League of Women Voters files federal lawsuit to force Pa. to come up with uniform procedure to authenticate mail-in ballots

By: - August 7, 2020 4:56 pm

(Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

(*This story was updated at 8:28 p.m. to correct the venue where the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania filed its lawsuit. The litigation was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.)

A leading voting rights group sued the state’s top election official in federal court on Friday, saying the state’s uneven methods for authenticating mail-in ballots don’t guarantee voters enough time to fix issues before their votes are disqualified.

Lawyers representing the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters want a federal judge to order Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to establish a new, uniform procedure to authenticate mail-in ballots and to help counties implement it ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

They warn that thousands of mail-in voters could be disenfranchised this fall if the court doesn’t intervene. 

“Mail-in voters deserve the same confidence that their vote will be counted as if they voted at their local polling site on Election Day,” the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia*, states. “But the absence of uniform, statewide procedures for notice and [remedy] of ballot issues precludes that confidence.”

The League filed the lawsuit on behalf of two Pennsylvanians who wish to vote by mail in November, but fear their ballots will be disqualified. It also names county election boards and officials from Allegheny, Philadelphia and Bucks counties as defendants.

The plaintiffs contend that Pennsylvania counties have inconsistent methods for verifying mail-in ballots, and don’t all give voters the opportunity to fix problems to ensure their vote is counted. 

A record 1.8 million Pennsylvania voters applied for mail-in ballots ahead of the June 2 primary election, according to the Department of State. It was the first major race in the state lawmakers overhauled Pennsylvania’s election code to allow universal mail-in voting.

But Pennsylvania election law does not outline a uniform standard for verifying mail-in ballots or notifying voters of problems. 

The League of Women voters says that allows county officials to enforce their own policies, which can include matching a voter’s signature on a ballot against the signature on his voter registration documents.

Plaintiffs say that signature-verification methods are unreliable but nonetheless disqualify authentic votes, especially since counties aren’t required to give voters timely notification of any issues.

That’s what allegedly happened to plaintiff Amy Campbell, who cast a mail-in ballot in Philadelphia County for the June 2 primary election. 

In the complaint, Campbell says the Philadelphia Board of Elections notified her via email on June 11 that her ballot had been rejected because the board could not obtain her signature. But Cooper says the email contained no instructions for how to remedy the issue and ensure that her ballot was counted. 

Since it was too late by then to vote in person, “her vote simply did not count,” the complaint says. 

The League of Women Voters is asking the federal court  to bar counties from using signature-verification methods to authenticate mail-in ballots. 

They also want Boockvar to provide guidance to county election officials on a new, uniform procedure for verifying mail-in ballots that gives voters enough time to learn about problems and fix them. 

The new suit from the League of Women voters isn’t the only legal challenge Boockvar is facing as Pennsylvania approaches a highly contentious presidential election. 

Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against Boockvar in April claiming that Pennsylvania had failed to maintain its voter rolls, and should purge 800,000 voters who should be classified as “inactive.”

That suit is unlikely to be resolved ahead of the Nov. 3 election, experts told WHYY-FM earlier this week.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.