Absentee voting is crucial to allowing for full participation in our democracy by people whose work takes them out of town, people with a physical disability or illness, college students, and many other voters who cannot reach their polling place on Election Day. But Pennsylvania has some of the tightest deadlines for requesting and returning ballots absentee ballots in the country. As a result, large numbers of Pennsylvanians are disenfranchised, even though they submit absentee ballot applications on time, because they do not receive their ballot in time to fill it out and mail it back to election officials before the Election Code deadline for receiving completed absentee ballots. This statutory deadline for county officials to receive completed absentee ballots–the Friday before Election Day–is the earliest such deadline of any state in the country. In 2018 alone, more than 4,500 completed absentee ballots were rejected just in Southeastern Pennsylvania because they were received after this Friday deadline, according to a report from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In November 2018, nine voters filed a lawsuit, Adams Jones et al. v. Boockvar, challenging Pennsylvania’s restrictive absentee voting system under the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions in Commonwealth Court. The Law Center has now joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and pro bono council from Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett LLP, in representing these voters.
The Petitioners’ individual stories highlight the challenges that absentee voters face in casting their ballot in Pennsylvania. For example, voter Edward Ream works 24-hour shifts as an emergency medical technician in Perry County. As soon as Mr. Ream received his schedule on October 27 and learned that he would be working on Election Day, November 6, he requested an absentee ballot by mail. He did not receive a ballot from Perry County until October 31, and was unable to return it through the mail by Pennsylvania’s deadline, only two days later. He was told by the Perry County Board of Elections that there was no way that his ballot would count, and that he did not qualify for an emergency absentee ballot.
Pennsylvania makes it harder to vote absentee, and to have that vote count, than almost any other state. We have been advocates for change to this system for some time. If the General Assembly will not take action to remove this barrier to the ballot box, we will look to the court to overturn this unnecessarily early absentee ballot deadline.