The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pennsylvania court declares state’s mail-in voting law unconstitutional, in win for Republicans

The state’s Democratic attorney general promised a swift appeal and insisted that the court’s action won’t have an immediate impact on elections this year

Chester County election workers process mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election at West Chester University on Nov. 4, 2020, in West Chester, Pa. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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correction

A previous version of this story said President Biden beat former president Donald Trump in Pennsylvania by less than one percentage point in 2020. Biden beat Trump by slightly more than one percentage point in the state. The story has been corrected.

A Pennsylvania court struck down the state’s expansive mail-in voting law as unconstitutional, delivering a temporary win to state Republicans who challenged the law after former president Donald Trump falsely claimed mail-in voting resulted in election fraud.

While the two-year-old law was struck down by a majority of the five-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and the state’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro (D), promised a swift appeal, criticizing the court’s opinion as being “based on twisted logic and faulty reasoning.”

“The administration will immediately appeal this decision to the state Supreme Court and today’s lower court ruling will have no immediate effect on mail-in voting pending a final decision on the appeal,” Wolf said Friday.

The state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed the law establishing no-excuse mail-in voting for all voters in 2019 with bipartisan support. Previously, Pennsylvania voters could cast absentee ballots if they met certain criteria.

Amid the pandemic, more than 2.6 million Pennsylvania voters, out of 6.9 million, cast mail-in or absentee ballots.

The court said Friday that any changes to the voting law would require a constitutional amendment.

“No-excuse mail-in voting makes the exercise of the franchise more convenient and has been used four times in the history of Pennsylvania. Approximately 1.38 million voters have expressed their interest in voting by mail permanently,” Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote. “If presented to the people, a constitutional amendment to end the Article VII, Section 1 requirement of in-person voting is likely to be adopted. But a constitutional amendment must be presented to the people and adopted into our fundamental law before legislation authorizing no-excuse mail-in voting can ‘be placed upon our statute books.’ ”

In bringing the legal challenge, some Republicans in the state echoed Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and his criticism of mail-in voting, with several seeking to undo the law for which they once voted.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Wolf pointed out the GOP reversal.

“The Republican-controlled legislature passed Act 77 with strong bipartisan support in 2019 to make voting more safe, secure and accessible, and millions of Pennsylvanians have embraced it,” Wolf said. “The simple fact is that despite near-unanimous Republican legislative support for this historic update to Pennsylvania election law, they now want to strip away mail-in voting in the service of the ‘big lie.’”

Shapiro, in his statement, stressed that the court’s ruling will not have “any immediate impact” on upcoming elections. The state is holding both gubernatorial and a U.S. Senate election this year.

The Pennsylvania Department of State also said in a statement that it disagreed with the ruling and that it is “working to file an immediate appeal” to the state’s Supreme Court, which has a 5-to-2 Democratic majority.

In a statement, Wanda Murren, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania secretary of state, told voters: “Today’s ruling on the use of mail-in ballots has no immediate effect on mail-in voting. Go ahead and request your mail-in ballot for the May primary election.” The statement added: “The Department is notifying all county election boards that they should proceed with all primary election preparations as they were before today’s Commonwealth Court ruling. There should be no change in their procedures.”

The panel of the state court that declared the law unconstitutional is made up of three Republicans and two Democrats. The three Republicans ruled in favor of a group of Republicans in the state legislature, who challenged the law in light of Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. The two Democrats dissented.

Trump, whose debunked allegations of widespread voter fraud have been promoted by some Pennsylvania Republicans, celebrated the decision to strike the law Friday.

“Big news out of Pennsylvania, great patriotic spirit is developing at a level that nobody thought possible,” he said in a statement.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court took up a similar challenge to the state’s expanded voting law after the 2020 presidential election. Republican plaintiffs demanded that all mail ballots be thrown out after the fact. The court rejected the challenge on the grounds that it had been filed too late.

In November 2020, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David Wecht wrote that the petitioners challenging the state’s new voting law “could have brought this action at any time between October 31, 2019, when Governor Wolf signed Act 77 into law, and April 28, 2020, when this Court still retained exclusive jurisdiction over constitutional challenges to it.”

What remains unclear, however, is whether the court will approach a prospective challenge differently than one seeking to alter the administration of a past election.

The no-excuse mail-in voting law was a result of a compromise between the parties: Democrats were able to legalize mail-in voting expansions, and Republicans succeeded in abolishing straight-ticket voting.

At the time, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R) said the voting expansion law was “a worthy one.”

“Ultimately, this is the most significant modernization of our elections code in decades,” Corman said then, according to the Associated Press.

While Corman, now president pro tempore of the state’s Senate and a candidate for governor, was not among the Republican challengers named in the suit against the mail-in voting expansion, he has questioned the results of the 2020 election and has said he has talked to Trump about efforts to investigate the results.

After the ruling, Corman vowed to introduce similar legislation that would, among other things, eliminate straight-party voting and end the use of drop boxes.

The Commonwealth Court panel’s ruling “should serve as a call to action to open up a serious conversation about the reforms necessary to make voting both accessible and secure for all Pennsylvanians,” Corman said in a statement. “Governor Wolf has ignored this debate for over a year, but hopefully this ruling will help bring him to the table so we can address concerns about our election system once and for all.”

Joe Biden beat Trump in Pennsylvania by slightly more than one percentage point. Allegations of significant voter fraud in the state have been debunked. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, Pennsylvania’s flip from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 was largely driven by Democratic gains among political independents and lower-income voters for the Scranton-born Biden.

Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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