Pennsylvania’s top court extends mailed ballot return deadline, approves drop boxes ahead of vote-by-mail surge forecast for November.

The state Supreme Court also affirmed poll watchers can't work outside their home county and election officials can't accept ballots mailed without an internal secrecy envelope.

  • Emily Previti

(Harrisburg) — State Supreme Court decisions Thursday gave Pennsylvanians some clarity on key ballot issues ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Decisions in the two cases – one brought by the state Democratic Party and the other by the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans – found:

  • Counties must accept mailed ballots through 5 p.m. Nov. 6 so long as they’re postmarked by Election Day
  • Counties can set up drop boxes where voters can put their filled-out ballots
  • Campaign poll watchers cannot work at polls outside their home county
  • If a ballot isn’t filled out correctly, counties can reject it without first reaching out to the voter to give them a chance to fix it
  • Counties should discard ballots that aren’t received without a second, internal secrecy envelope.

The justices ruled against Democrats on three of those five issues and dismissed all but one of the retirees’ case claims as moot due to the order on the Dems complaint. PARA also lost its bid to expand permissions for voters to have a third-party hand deliver their ballot.

Thursday’s determinations partly conflict with recent Department of State guidance, though spokeswoman Wanda Murren says DoS will “amend or rescind guidance as necessary to conform with any court ruling.”

DoS issued guidelines last week saying counties cannot reject mailed ballots based solely on signature analysis, prompting the Campaign Legal Center and League of Women Voters to drop a related lawsuit Monday.  

The agency also told county election leaders earlier this summer they should count so-called “naked” ballots received without a second, internal secrecy envelope.

Meanwhile, unresolved court cases and pending legislation could bring more changes before Election Day.

In a federal case, President Donald Trump’s campaign is seeking to ban drop boxes and let poll watchers work anywhere in Pennsylvania. U.S. District Judge Nicholas Ranjan, who’d suspended proceedings in the federal lawsuit pending the resolution of related state court lawsuits, lifted his stay on court action after the two rulings Thursday.  

Election ballots sit in a bin at the Voter Registration office in the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown, PA., on Tuesday, September 15, 2020.

Hannah Yoon / NPR

Election ballots sit in a bin at the Voter Registration office in the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown, PA., on Tuesday, September 15, 2020.

Last week, Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson ruled against the NAACP Pennsylvania Conference in its bid to establish rules meant to make in-person voting easier and safer during a pandemic and expand requirements for translation support for voters with limited English proficiency. It’s unclear whether the NAACP will file an appeal. The organization also sought to establish drop box legality and limit campaign poll watchers to working in their counties of residence.

A GOP-backed bill expected to be vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf would ban drop boxes and let poll watchers work anywhere in Pennsylvania.

It also would let counties start precanvassing ballots the weekend before the election – a provision that has bipartisan support and would minimize delays in tabulation and finalizing results.

Wolf wants a longer lead time for ballot processing (three weeks, which election directors have said would be ideal) and appointing poll workers (60 days versus five).

House Bill 2626 is pending consideration by the State Government Committee in the state Senate, due back in session Monday.

Republican legislative leaders say they’re weighing their options in light of the rulings Thursday.

“HB2626 is option number one, it’s close to the finish line and discussions (among state lawmakers) are still ongoing,” said House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman.

Also on Thursday, the state Supreme Court ruled 5-2 to remove Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins from the ballot.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect U.S District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan lifting the stay on proceedings a related federal lawsuit.

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