The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a decision from a lower-level appeals court demanding that certain mail-in ballots turned in as part of a local judicial race in Pennsylvania be counted. The disputed ballots were submitted without handwritten dates next to voter signatures — which didn’t directly weigh on the validity of the vote or eligibility of the voter.
The signatures aren’t present on the ballots themselves; the spots for them and the dates were on the outer ballot envelopes turned in with voters’ selections. It’s over 250 mail-in ballots that were at issue, and the path to the Supreme Court’s choice to uphold the ballots’ validity has sometimes wavered. The federal lawsuit leading to the court’s recent conclusion came after a state court ruled against counting the ballots, and an initial district court ruling after the filing of that federal case was also against tabulating the ballots. The case alleged violations of “the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and First and 14th Amendments because ballots are rejected for an “immaterial technical defect” and this unduly burdens voters,” as explained by Democracy Docket, a voting rights organization.
Besides declining to force the counting of the ballots, the district court also ruled that components of the Civil Rights Act to which the case was tied didn’t even provide for the so-called private right of action allowing plaintiffs to move forward. Later, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, concluding that the disputed ballots must be counted and that the disputed private right of action actually was present, allowing for the challenge to stand. It’s the Republican contender in the initial contest who evidently pushed the challenge to the ballots to the Supreme Court; there, that candidate filed a push for the previous appeals ruling to be put on-hold. Initially, such a hold was provided — but now, with a fuller conclusion regarding the matter, the court has upheld the counting of the ballots and done away with that hold.
It appears as though the only written explanation of their position came from Justice Samuel Alito, who — along with Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch — dissented from the majority’s decision to uphold the counting of those ballots. It also appears as though Alito himself is the one who originally issued the preliminary suspension of the earlier appeals court ruling; a Supreme Court document in the case states that the “application for stay presented to JUSTICE ALITO and by him referred to the Court is denied. The order heretofore entered by JUSTICE ALITO is vacated.” Federal law to which the 3rd Circuit’s decision was tied states, in part: “No person acting under color of law shall… deny the right of any individual to vote in any election because of an error or omission on any record or paper related to any application, registration, or other act requisite to voting, if such error or omission is not material in determining whether such individual is qualified under State law to vote in such election.”
Alito argued failing to abide by rules for mail-in voting and therefore losing the opportunity to have one’s vote counted doesn’t equate to losing the right to vote. “When a mail-in ballot is not counted because it was not filled out correctly, the voter is not denied “the right to vote,”” he claimed. “Rather, that individual’s vote is not counted because he or she did not follow the rules for casting a ballot.” His idea would seem to be that losing the opportunity to vote in one election doesn’t necessarily entail a meaningfully more expansive loss — which seems to contrast with the plain meaning of the language of the law. Whether you lose the right to vote in one election or multiple elections, you still lost it. And if he would argue that the right to vote isn’t the same as the ability to actually cast a ballot that’s counted: it’s the right to vote that’s inherent in that ability. Eliminating the ability to vote means doing away with the opportunity to express that right.