A Pennsylvania law known as Act 77 that expanded the option to vote by mail to every Pennsylvania voter was upheld this week by the state Supreme Court after a group of Republicans sued, alleging the framework violated the state Constitution in Pennsylvania.
Although the law, as developed and implemented, established a legally distinct category of “mail-in” ballots available to all voters, the Republicans responsible for the case argued certain state constitutional provisions dealing with “absentee” voting should restrict “mail-in” voting opportunities. Functionally, The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that absentee and mail-in ballots are the same, although accomplishing the same result — getting a vote cast through the mail — doesn’t erase the distinctions in underlying legal rationales. Justices on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court took the relevant state constitutional provisions as basically a floor for the availability of mail-in voting opportunities, not an insurmountable limit. As Justice Christine Donohue put it, “We find no restriction in our Constitution on the General Assembly’s ability to create universal mail-in voting.”
Since before the 2020 election even actually happened, Republicans — certain high-profile voices in the party, at least — have kept up a campaign of baseless antagonism to the prospect of mail-in voting. There’s no real-world issue with election integrity that would mandate drastic new restrictions on the handling of elections. One of the Republican Justices on the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court argued in this case that her stance against allowing the universal mail-in voting law to stand didn’t reflect an opinion on the substance of the measure — but in the end, the result of her side prevailing would be a sudden dramatic reduction in opportunities for Pennsylvanians to legally cast their ballots. Before Pennsylvania implemented its new mail-in voting rules during the 2020 elections, a very small minority of votes were cast in that fashion.
The state Supreme Court’s majority also basically dismissed the notion from the Republican plaintiffs that prior court conclusions mandated that there be strict limits on mail-in voting. Republicans behind the case pushed the idea that key state standards for the eligibility of voters were formulated in a way that voting in-person should be inherently taken as the only option for most voters; they used a pair of particularly dated court cases, including one from 1862, for that argument. The original law was — perhaps surprisingly — a product of bipartisan negotiation and cooperation between the state’s Democratic governor and Republicans in the state legislature. GOP state legislators who originally voted for Act 77 are among those involved in this state court case against it, perhaps indicating how more extreme certain elements of the GOP are getting on election-related issues.
A lower-level state court in Pennsylvania blocked the universal mail-in voting law, but after an appeal from the state to the Supreme Court, the state’s highest court let the law temporarily stand while it dealt with arguments over it. Elsewhere, the highest state court in Massachusetts also recently upheld a new set of key election rules there, allowing all voters in the state to use no-excuse absentee voting, meaning no justification of the voter’s preference to election authorities is required, as reported on this site. In a manner similar to the Pennsylvania arguments, the Massachusetts attorney general’s team argued in defense of the new law that no-excuse mail-in voting could be characterized as a method of early voting — not an expansion of the absentee voting addressed by the state Constitution.
Image: Gage Skidmore/ Creative Commons