Advocates for voters sue Pennsylvania for rejecting thousands of mail-in ballots due to inconsequential handwritten date mistakes

May 28, 2024 – In Pennsylvania, thousands of voters have their mail-in ballots rejected each year solely because of a common trivial mistake: writing an incorrect date, or no date at all, on their ballot envelope. Election officials do not use the date to determine whether the ballot was returned on time—ballots must be received by county boards of election by 8 p.m. on Election Day, regardless of the date handwritten on the envelope—and the date is not used to determine voter eligibility. Nonetheless, this essentially meaningless requirement caused the rejection of at least 10,000 ballots from voters who had submitted their mail-in ballots on time in the 2022 general election.

Today, a statewide coalition of nonpartisan community organizations sued Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt and election officials in Philadelphia and Allegheny County, demanding an end to the disqualification of mail-in ballots for inconsequential date errors. This practice violates the fundamental right to vote in free and equal elections guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution, the groups claim.

Read the petition for review here. 

Petitioners filed a brief requesting a preliminary injunction on May 29, 2024.

The petitioners—Black Political Empowerment Project, POWER Interfaith, Make the Road Pennsylvania, OnePA Activists United, New PA Project Education Fund, Casa San José, Pittsburgh United, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, and Common Cause Pennsylvania—are represented by attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, joined by pro bono co-counsel from Arnold & Porter.

Several voters supported the complaint as witnesses by submitting sworn declarations describing their experience having their ballots rejected. Joanne Sowell, an Allegheny County voter who rarely misses an election, received an email notifying her that her ballot in this year’s primary election would be rejected for an incorrect date. She was already boarding an airplane to leave Pennsylvania for a cruise vacation when she saw the message, and thus had no opportunity to cure the mistake or vote provisionally.

“When I returned from my trip, the returned ballot was waiting at my house, but it was too late to fix it,” voter Joanne Sowell wrote in her declaration. “I am very upset that my ballot will not count because nobody’s ballot should get rejected for a trivial paperwork mistake. When I received the email, it really bothered me for a few days because the date shouldn’t matter; it’s what’s inside the ballot that counts.”

“I don’t believe that the date serves any purpose,” said Joe Sommar, a Chester County voter who also submitted a declaration after his ballot was rejected. “The county knows that my ballot was received on time, and I don’t know why the date is necessary. It seems like an arbitrary thing, just another step to allow people to mess up and have their votes not counted.”

The organizations that filed the case today in Commonwealth Court represent tens of thousands of members across Pennsylvania.

“Procedures that needlessly block even a single eligible voter from exercising that most fundamental right are suspect.”

“Our state constitution is clear: every vote matters in Pennsylvania,” said Ben Geffen, senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “Procedures that needlessly block even a single eligible voter from exercising that most fundamental right are suspect. This pointless handwritten date requirement—which every year causes thousands of eligible voters’ ballots to be rejected for harmless clerical errors—cannot continue in Pennsylvania.”

A disproportionate share of rejected ballots come from older voters: in the 2022 general election in Philadelphia, voters over age 50 cast 72% of mail-in ballots—and 81% of mail-in ballots that were rejected for clerical errors. An investigation from Votebeat found Black and Latino communities, along with communities with higher poverty rates, face higher rates of ballot rejection for mail-in ballot errors.

“Pennsylvania should be making it easier to vote, not more difficult,” said Mike Lee, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This arbitrary handwritten date requirement has already disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters in the commonwealth. With such high stakes in the 2024 election, Pennsylvania counties must do everything they can to ensure that every vote is counted.”

This state case is separate from a federal lawsuit challenging the date requirement filed by the NAACP, which claimed that the requirement violates federal civil rights law. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the date rules, but proceedings in that case are ongoing.

Quotes from the community organizations bringing the case

“Every eligible voter must have their votes counted during our elections”, said Alex Wallach Hanson, Executive Director of Pittsburgh United. “Requiring voters to fill out arbitrary and confusing forms is a major contributing factor to the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black, brown, senior, and new American voters. Our intent is clear– to hold the state accountable to all voters to improve voting access and ensure the people who shape our communities have the final say in our elections.”

“The New PA Project Education Fund’s primary focus is to expand the electorate so that it reflects all Pennsylvanians,” said Kadida Kenner, chief executive officer of the New PA Project Education Fund. “Unfortunately, disqualifying voters’ mail ballots over a trivial paperwork error on their return envelope discourages voters from participating in the democratic process. We want Pennsylvanians voting twice a year – every year – not disenfranchised by this unnecessary rule.”

“Refusing to count a person’s vote because of a minor technicality undermines fair elections by disenfranchising voters who deserve to have their voices heard,” said Diana Robinson, co-deputy director for Make the Road Pennsylvania. “Who among us hasn’t miswritten the date? It’s a common error that hardly disqualifies an eligible voter. If your ballot is received on time, the date written on the paper is irrelevant.”

“Every vote counts, and every voice in our communities deserves to be heard,” said Steve Paul, executive director of One PA Activists United. “Rejecting mail-in ballots over trivial errors silences thousands of voters, especially from our marginalized communities, which are made up of Black and Brown working class folks. We must continue to advocate and organize against these barriers to ensure a truly inclusive democracy where our system works for all of us, not just the privileged few.”

“At Common Cause Pennsylvania, we believe that every vote should be counted,” said Philip Hensley-Robin, executive director at Common Cause Pennsylvania. “Whether voters complete the handwritten date on their mail ballot envelope is irrelevant in determining whether the ballot was validly cast. The Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees that elections shall be free and fair, and when ballots are rejected for irrelevant errors, our elections fall short. This case is about ensuring that every voice is heard, no matter how you vote or what county you live in.”

“Today marks a crucial step in protecting the right to vote for all Pennsylvanians,” said Maria Delgado-Santana, president of League of Women Voters of PA. “Rejecting thousands of mail-in ballots due to minor date errors is an unjust barrier that undermines our democracy. The League of Women Voters of PA and our partners are committed to ending this disenfranchisement and ensuring every eligible vote counts. Every Pennsylvanian deserves to have their voice heard in free and fair elections, without being silenced by bureaucratic technicalities.”

“POWER Interfaith believes that every Pennsylvanian’s voice deserves to be heard, and that means ensuring every eligible vote is counted,” said Rev. Gregory Edwards, acting executive director of POWER Interfaith. “The arbitrary rejection of ballots due to minor date errors undermines our democracy and disenfranchises voters, particularly in marginalized communities. It’s time to remove this unnecessary barrier and uphold the right to free and equal elections as guaranteed by our state constitution.”