Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot law goes to court

The tables were turned in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday as lawyers argued over the fate of the state’s three-year mail-in ballot law, with attorneys for Governor Tom Wolf arguing to protect the legislature and lawyers for 14 dissidents. lawmakers arguing to strike down a law that 11 of them had voted to approve.

The law, known as Law 77, was declared unconstitutional in a January 3-2 ruling by the state’s Commonwealth Court, as it ruled on two challenges to the law – one brought by the Republican lawmakers, as well as another from Bradford County. Commissioner Doug McClinko.

Bill 77 was approved as part of a deal between the GOP-controlled General Assembly and Democrat Wolf, in which the General Assembly passed mail-in ballots without apology, and Wolf agreed to eliminate direct voting. The bill also provided funds to counties to replace decertified voting machines. It passed with near-unanimous Republican support.

Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot law unconstitutional, state court rules; Wolf Admin Calls

But a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel that initially struck down the law ruled that universal postal voting should have been passed as a constitutional amendment, which requires a referendum, rather than enacted law.

The opinion, written by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, cited two cases dating back more than 100 years to argue that the state constitution required voters to show up in person to vote, barring a handful of excuses listed in the constitution.

In oral arguments before the state Supreme Court, Mike Dimino, an attorney for the McClinko, cited those same excuses — such as illness, work, or a religious reason — as evidence that if the authority of the Legislature included the ability to allow all Commonwealth voters to vote by mail, there was “no reason” to list specific excuses in the state’s founding legal document, whose origins date back to the 1700s.

Judge Christine Donohue pushed back, saying “if there’s a political reason to show up to vote, it’s to carry out the intent and make sure only the right people show up to vote,” as “all white free men”. guaranteed a vote under an 1838 constitutional change.

Lawyers for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the National Democratic Party argued that changing circumstances and constitutional language meant the high court needed to break with the lower court’s decision and uphold the law.

“All doubts must be resolved in favor of the authority of the General Assembly,” said attorney Michael Wiygul, of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller.

If the high court were to accept the lower court, attorney Seth Waxman added, “there will be at least mass confusion” from the hundreds of thousands of voters who turned out to vote regularly with postal ballots.

“I submit that the affirmation of the Commonwealth Court decision is going to imply disenfranchisement of voters who have come to rely on the current system,” said Waxman, who represented the Democratic Party.

By contrast, Waxman argued, there is no point “in imposing a system of democratic elections that allows fewer people than more people to participate.”

Wolf’s attorney, Wigyul, also pointed to broad bipartisan support for Bill 77, though the justices appeared unconvinced by such an argument.

“I don’t know why overwhelming support in the Legislative Assembly deserves deference,” said Justice Kevin Brobson, who was elected a Republican last November.

Yet the fact that 11 GOP lawmakers who once voted for the law have now challenged it has also piqued the judges’ interest.

Interviewed on Tuesday, lawmakers’ attorney Gregory Teufel said lawmakers voted for Bill 77 at the time because they were unaware of the law’s “constitutional invalidity”.

“It’s an epic, fundamental shift that none of us can deny, and Pennsylvania voters have a right to have a say if we change it that way,” Teufel said. “It is not only for the legislator to decide so.”

At first, Act 77 was hailed as a bipartisan victory. However, Trump has spent most of his re-election campaign attacking the integrity of mail-in voting without evidence. Then, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Democratic voters used mail-in ballots en masse.

GOP lawmakers celebrate Bill 77 decision, though what’s next is unclear

Counties, prohibited by law from counting them until Election Day, were slow to process nearly 2 million mail-in votes that skewed current President Joe Biden. This gave the false impression that Trump was “losing” his advantage on election night to “dumps” of Democratic votes.

Republican voters, led by Trump and the rhetoric of his allies, have soured on mail-in voting.

However, the GOP leadership in Harrisburg has so far not supported a full repeal of Bill 77, only proposing to tighten verification and return requirements for mail-in votes, among other broader changes to the election code. of State.

Without legislative action, GOP House lawmakers filed their lawsuit in September 2021.

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