Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail law is constitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday upholding a 2019 measure that would allow any voter to use a vote-by-mail ballot and delete a cloud of uncertainty heading for the midterm elections.
The law greatly expanded voting by mail from a method allowed only in very few cases – about 5% of the votes cast in any given election – to a method that was approved by millions of people. users in the past two years.
It is the product of bipartisan negotiations between Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and the Republicans who control the state legislature, the biggest change to Pennsylvania election law in generations. But its rollout in 2020 comes during both the first year of the pandemic and a heated presidential election. As large numbers of voters cast their ballots by mail, state and county election officials tried to build the system — in some cases triggering Republican outrage and lawsuits over the issue. their decision.
That was further emphasized by then-President Donald Trump, who start mail-in voting attack last month his defeat to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. The Republican Party has continued try to break the law known as Act 77, with some saying it was abused in the process, and others espousing bogus conspiracy theories about widespread fraud.
The result is a partisan split over the carefully negotiated vote-by-mail legislation – and supported by both Democrats and Republicans that was on full display following Tuesday’s ruling.
“I will continue to campaign for voting reforms that remove barriers and increase voting access,” Wolf said in a statement as Democrats and allied groups applauded the court. .
Meanwhile, the Republican key figure in the House of Representatives on elections argues that elected Democrats with a majority on the court will act as a party. And a spokesman for Republicans in the Senate said the ruling “highlights the importance of actions taken by the General Assembly to enhance the integrity of elections,” including adding new requirements. strict requirements for voter ID in the state Constitution.
Partisanship helped create Proposition 77 in the first place, with bipartisan talks coming only in 2019 after Wolf and Republican lawmakers Constantly headbutting over election law and sponsor a new voting machine.
Constitutional questions also revolved around the law from the outset.
Pennsylvania’s constitution clearly describes situations that allow absentee voting, including for voters with disabilities and those who will be leaving town on Election Day. Therefore, the legislature cannot simply extend absentee voting. Instead, Act 77 created a “mail-in” ballot the same as an absentee ballot. That created two types of vote-by-mail ballots that are functionally identical — and lawmakers further blurred the lines between the two in a separate bill they passed in March 2020.
A group of Republican lawmakers — some of whom voted for the legislation in 2019 — and a Republican county commissioner sued last summer, say Proposition 77 violates the state Constitution. They argued that the state Constitution’s protection of absentee voting meant that it was unconstitutional to provide voting by mail in other cases.
Their argument also focused on voter eligibility requirements, which included that “the person must reside in the constituency in which he or she will propose to vote at least 60 days immediately before election.”
Republicans argue that the language of “suggest to vote” means that voters must vote in person unless they fall under the constitutional exception to absentee voting, Republicans argue, based on two cases in 1862 and 1924.
The state Commonwealth Court agreed with that argument and temporarily repeal Act 77 in January. The state appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which upheld the ruling and upheld the law while reviewing the case.
The High Court heard the arguments in early March. Since then, officials and lawyers have been waiting for a ruling they know could come at any time and potentially confirm the status quo — or dramatically disrupt the electoral system.
On Tuesday, the court dropped its ruling: Act 77 did not pass the Constitution in expanding voting by mail, and the law is still on the books.
“We reiterate that our General Assembly is endowed with great legislative power, subject only to the limitations embodied in the Constitution,” Justice Christine Donohue wrote to the majority. “We see no restriction in our Constitution to the General Assembly’s ability to induce universal vote by mail.”
Donohue is joined by Chief Justice Max Baer and Judges Debra Todd and Kevin Dougherty; fifth justice, David Wecht, agrees with most of the comments. All year were elected as a Democrat.
They rejected the argument that previous courts had required them to limit mail-in voting only to expressly protected absentee voters. Browsing through the Constitution’s history and absentee voting, the court argued that absentee voters were the least protected group of voters allowed to vote by mail – but nothing stopped the legislature. make that choice available to others.
Two Republicans elected on the court, Judges Sallie Updyke Mundy and Kevin Brobson, disagreed. Both argued that the court had inappropriately reused history – and prior precedent – to protect the law.
“In short, the majority went beyond 160 years of this Court’s precedent to save a statute that is less than three years old,” Brobson wrote. “It’s not to correct some seriously wrong decisions or to vindicate a fundamental constitutional right.”
Mundy emphasized that her disagreement with the Democratic majority was about law and precedent, not policy or politics.
Mundy writes: “I have not expressed my opinion on whether or not unjustified mail-in voting reflects wise public policy. “It is not my function as a member of the Judiciary Service of this state. My function is to apply the text of the Pennsylvania Constitution, construed according to its history and judicial precedent. In doing so, I consider that that honorable document must be amended before any such policy can be validly enacted.
Tuesday’s decision is unlikely to frustrate parties fighting for Pennsylvania elections.
The same Republican lawmakers who sued Proposition 77 filed a second lawsuit in July, arguing that the act should be repealed on entirely separate grounds based on recent rulings by the Republican Party. federal court. Responses to that lawsuit are due on Monday.