New guidance on mail ballots in Pa.

Marc Levy
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — County officials reprised their call Tuesday for fixes to Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law to help them run a smoother election in November, as a fight brewed over whether counties must throw out mailed-in ballots without the voter’s handwritten date on the envelope.

The counties’ call for action comes amid a partisan stalemate over how to fix shortcomings or gray areas in Pennsylvania’s 2019 expansive mail-in voting law that, for the first time, allowed no-excuse mail in ballots.

Counties had fruitlessly sought changes last year in hopes of avoiding a drawn-out post-election vote count. One would let counties process mail-in ballots before Election Day, something that the vast majority of states allow.

Last fall, Republican lawmakers blocked that legislation despite support from Gov. Tom Wolf and Democrats.

Counties also want to move back the deadline to request a mail-in ballot application, from seven days before Election Day to 15 days. Wolf, a Democrat, opposes that, although Republicans support it.

“We are disappointed and frustrated at this lack of help for our counties and our voters,” said Kevin Boozel, a Butler County commissioner and president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

The two provisions would solve the majority of problems that counties have in election administration, association officials said.

Leverage: Much like last year, the provisions are being held up as leverage in a wider fight over election laws that Republicans insist must include stronger voter ID requirements.

Ultimately, last year’s loser, then-President Donald Trump, tried to exploit the days it took after polls closed to tabulate millions of mail-in ballots to spread baseless conspiracy theories and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.

On Tuesday, Wolf’s administration sided with Republican lawmakers and told counties that voters must sign and date their mail-in ballot envelope for their ballot to be counted.

That message prompted Philadelphia to change course.

One of two Democratic election commissioners in the city, Omar Sabir, changed his mind and voted with the sole Republican commissioner against counting undated ballots received in Pennsylvania’s May 18 primary election.

“While I still believe that the absence of dates is an inadvertent clerical error and should not be used to disenfranchise any eligible voter, I also agree that we must uphold the requirements set forth by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Sabir said in a statement.

Leaders of the state House Republican majority had warned Friday that they would seek the removal from office of Sabir and a fellow election commissioner, Democrat Lisa Deeley, if they allowed undated ballots to be counted.

Still, Philadelphia’s four suburban counties – Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery – decided to count undated ballots in the primary election.

A legal challenge is possible to stop the counties from counting the undated ballots if election officials there do not change their minds, said Adam Bonin, a lawyer who specializes in election law and often represents Democratic candidates.

The counties, in response, could counter that Pennsylvania’s handwritten date requirement violates federal law that prohibits states from disqualifying ballots for an error that is immaterial to determining whether someone is eligible to vote, Bonin said.

“Right now, those ballots are being counted, so if someone were to sue the counties to stop them from counting those ballots, I would expect this argument to be raised in response,” Bonin said.