February 15, 2022 – The Public Interest Law Center has filed an amicus brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, supporting voters’ right to choose to vote by mail. The brief backs the appeal by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from the Commonwealth Court’s decision to strike down Pennsylvania’s expansion of mail-in voting, Act 77. This law, passed with bipartisan support in 2019, allows all Pennsylvania voters to choose to cast a mail-in ballot without requiring an excuse.
The brief was filed on behalf of registered PA voters and Disability Rights Pennsylvania, a state-designated protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities, represented by the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono co-counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and Prof. Jessie Allen.
Any registered voter can benefit from the ease and convenience of mail-in voting, but there are many for whom it is a necessity. As outlined in the amicus brief, voter Molly Mahon, a South Philadelphia resident and neonatal intensive care unit nurse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, works day shifts from 7:00 AM to 7:25 PM. Ms. Mahon commutes to and from work by bus, and even if she used a rideshare or taxi to attempt to reach her polling place on Election Day, she would likely not arrive by the closing time of 8:00 PM.
Voters with disabilities face an especially increased risk of disenfranchisement. Even a relatively mild hearing impairment can be problematic in a crowded, noisy polling center when verbal instructions need to be heard and followed. Voters with severe mobility issues potentially encounter a myriad of barriers to a physical visit to the polls. For those who require a caregiver accompaniment, accessibility and convenience must be taken into account for both individuals. To compound the issue, some physical disabilities lead to compromised immune systems, leaving a person vulnerable to infections from COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Amici Matthew Jennings and Cindy Jennings face these obstacles. “Ms. Jennings is the sole caregiver for [her son] Matthew, who has multiple disabilities,” we write in our brief. “Matthew must use a wheelchair for mobility. He is also nonverbal and communicates using an electronic device. In addition, he was recently diagnosed with cancer. … Even if Matthew might have been eligible to vote by absentee ballot under pre-Act 77 rules, Ms. Jennings would not qualify, and in any event she is unable to leave Matthew alone. … If voting by mail-in ballot is eliminated, Matthew and Cindy Jennings both face a serious risk of disenfranchisement.”
Disability Rights Pennsylvania (DRP) works to ensure the right to vote independently and privately, without unjust barriers and impediments, for all people with disabilities within the Commonwealth. Curtailing Pennsylvania’s options for mail-in voting by striking down Act 77 would make it more difficult for many people with disabilities to vote, according to DRP and several of the registered PA voters filing this amicus brief. Some may attempt and exhaust exceedingly difficult options, to the point of finding it practically impossible to vote at all.
“Each of the Individual Amici is a Pennsylvania elector who would face disenfranchisement if this Court affirms, or who would have been disenfranchised in a recent election under the legal theory of the decision below,” our brief reads.
Amicus Leah Marx is married to an active-duty service member stationed in Washington State. When military spouses accompany their loved ones to out-of-state postings, they could also lose all options for absentee or mail-in voting under the Commonwealth Court’s decision.
Another group who would be affected by lack of a mail-in voting option are those who have been arrested and are detained while awaiting trial. An arrest without a conviction should not preclude anyone from exercising their right to vote.
“Act 77 filled critical gaps in voters’ access to the ballot box, was passed by the General Assembly with near unanimous and bipartisan support, and was signed into law by the Governor,” said Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Public Interest Law Center. “In the 2020 presidential election over two million Pennsylvanians voted by mail. They included healthcare workers and caregivers, individuals with disabilities, military spouses, and individuals who were incarcerated. This latest partisan attack on voting rights must not be condoned.”