Judge says ‘undated’ Pennsylvania ballots should count, setting up a likely appeal

An election worker continues the process of counting ballots for the 2022 Pennsylvania primary election in Mercer, Pa.

An election worker continues the process of counting ballots for the 2022 Pennsylvania primary election in Mercer, Pa. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Mailed ballots that arrive on time but in envelopes without dates handwritten by Pennsylvania voters should be counted, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in a case that’s likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter is expected to be appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before it ultimately reaches the high court, whose final word on what are often referred to as “undated ballots” may help determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential race and other key upcoming elections in the swing state.

The plaintiffs in this pair of lawsuits — including the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP and the Democratic campaign committees for U.S. House of Representatives and Senate candidates — argue that ballots in return envelopes without any handwritten date or with an incorrect one should not be disqualified from the 2022 midterm elections and future races in Pennsylvania.

While those handwritten dates are required by Pennsylvania state law, they are not used to confirm whether a person is allowed to vote. Counties have included ballots arriving in undated or misdated return envelopes in final vote tallies for past elections.

Not counting these kinds of ballots, the plaintiffs argue, would violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says a person’s right to vote cannot be denied for “an error or omission” that is “not material” in determining voting eligibility.

The Republican National Committee and other GOP groups have joined the case in opposition to counting ballots without handwritten dates or those that are misdated.

For the 2022 midterm elections, registered Democrats outpaced Republicans in voting by mail in Pennsylvania and nationally, according to the United States Elections Project’s analysis.

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court voided a lower court’s ruling in a similar case over ballots for a Pennsylvania county judge’s race after the Republican candidate conceded. Three of the high court’s conservative justices — Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch — have indicated that they’re not convinced that disqualifying ballots for missing handwritten dates violates the Civil Rights Act.

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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