The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pennsylvania voters scramble to cast new ballots after GOP lawsuit

The effort spawned a two-hour line at Philadelphia City Hall, as well as anger among voters who saw it as an attempt to infringe on their rights

People wait in line to vote early or resubmit ballots Monday at Philadelphia City Hall. (Caroline Gutman for The Washington Post)
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Six days after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated thousands of mail-in ballots in response to a Republican lawsuit, citizens in Philadelphia and other parts of this battleground state scrambled to cast replacements so their votes will be counted on Election Day.

Kirby Smith said after he and his wife were told that their ballots would not count, because they were missing dates, they stood in line for two hours at Philadelphia City Hall on Monday to cast new ones, missing much of the workday.

“Oh I’m going to vote. It’s not a question,” said Smith, a 59-year-old Democrat who said he viewed the court decision as part of an attempt to block people from voting. “I’m going to fight back.”

Multiple judges have ruled over the past two years that mail ballots returned on time by eligible Pennsylvania voters should be counted even if they lack a date on the outer envelope. Republicans sued in October to reverse that policy, arguing that it violated state law. Last Tuesday, they won a favorable ruling from the state Supreme Court, which directed counties not to count ballots with missing or inaccurate dates.

That decision triggered a sprawling volunteer-run effort to make sure voters who had already returned their ballots knew that their votes would not count if they didn’t take action.

Nowhere has that effort been more intense than in Philadelphia. On Saturday, city officials published the names of more than 2,000 voters who had returned defective ballots and urged them to come to City Hall to cast a new ballot in the few days remaining before Election Day. Community activists and volunteers for the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party began calling, texting and knocking on people’s doors to get the word out.

On Monday, the line to cast a replacement vote at City Hall snaked outside and into the building’s courtyard as volunteers supplied snacks and bottled water, according to voters and activists.

“I’m lucky. I could wait in line and do this,” said Melissa Sherwood, a 25-year-old Democrat who works from home. “Some people who don’t have that luxury probably took one look at the line and said no way.”

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Penina Bernstein said she was thousands of miles away in Colorado when she found out — from friends and strangers who contacted her via Facebook — that her ballot was undated and would not count. She made immediate plans to get back to Pennsylvania to vote.

“I am flying home tonight and I will be there to fix it tomorrow, because my voice will not be silenced by voter suppression,” said Bernstein, 40, who added that she is not wealthy and was making the trip at significant expense.

Several volunteers said they had spoken to many other voters who said they would not be able to make it to City Hall to fix their ballots, because of a disability or a lack of transportation.

The mobilization to contact voters is a decentralized, ad hoc effort being carried out by many disparate groups. While some voters told The Washington Post that they had been contacted about their ballots multiple times, others said they had not heard anything until they received a call from a reporter.

“Our fear is there will probably be several thousand Philadelphians who lawfully attempted to vote and their votes will not count,” said Benjamin Abella, an emergency physician who has been volunteering with a group of fellow doctors working to notify voters that they need to fix their ballots.

Abella said that the effort by his group and others was a grass-roots mobilization to compensate for the lack of government effort to contact voters individually. He said voters who managed to get to City Hall found few workers ready to receive them — thus the long waits. “It’s really unfortunate that this is the way democracy works in America in 2022,” he said.

Shoshanna Israel, with the Working Families Party in Philadelphia, said the effort to help voters fix their ballots has snowballed since Sunday, with 250 people signed up for a phone-bank session Monday evening. The party has programmed voters’ names, type of ballot deficiency and county of residence into software that creates a tailored script for volunteers contacting voters.

Several voters told The Post that they had not received any notification from the city government. Nick Custodio, a deputy city commissioner, said Philadelphia officials put out a robocall to voters whose numbers they had. But otherwise, he said, “we’re focused on the election tomorrow.”

City officials had announced that voters could cast a replacement at City Hall until 5 p.m. Monday. But about 3:45, officials told some people in line that they would not reach the office before closing time and could not vote, according to Abella, who was there.

The decision upset some people, and sheriff’s deputies arrived to enforce the decision. City Commissioner Seth Bluestein, a Republican, wrote on Twitter that it was a “disgrace” that voters were being put in the position of trying to cure their ballots at the last minute. City officials are “doing the best they can to help as many voters as possible with very little time and resources,” he wrote.

Not all counties in Pennsylvania notify voters when their mail ballots are deficient and allow them to submit replacements. Courts have found that state law does not require counties to give voters a chance to fix defective ballots, but neither does it prevent them from doing so.

In Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, officials posted lists of more than 1,000 names of voters with undated or incorrectly dated ballots. Just over 100 cured their ballots on Monday, according to city officials.

Darrin Kelly, president of the Pittsburgh-area AFL-CIO-affiliate, said his members account for 147 of the voters whose ballots have been set aside there. His volunteer phone-bankers had contacted about 100 of them by 5 p.m. Monday and expected to reach all of them by the end of the evening.

“The most important thing is protecting our democracy and making sure everybody has a chance to vote,” said Kelly, who guessed that most of his members are Democrats.

At a public meeting of the Lancaster County elections board Monday, a citizen urged the board to notify voters who had cast defective ballots and allow them to cast another, saying to do otherwise would amount to disenfranchising neighbors. One of the board members said he agreed, but the other two did not.

“We’ve never cured ballots in Lancaster County,” said Joshua G. Parsons, a county commissioner and a member of the board. “It’s a questionable procedure.”

In northeastern Pennsylvania’s Monroe County, Republicans sued last week in an effort to block officials from inspecting mail ballots before Election Day, the first step of the county’s effort to ensure that voters who returned ballots with errors — such as missing signatures or dates — had a chance to cast a replacement. A state judge denied that request Monday.

Meanwhile, the fight over undated and incorrectly dated ballots is not over. When the state Supreme Court directed counties not to count those ballots, it also directed them to set those ballots aside and preserve them — apparently in anticipation of more litigation. On Friday, several voting and rights groups filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that not counting those ballots over a “meaningless technicality” would amount to a violation of civil rights law.

Election officials fear vote-counting delays will help fuel fraud claims

Clifford Levine, a Democratic election lawyer based in Pittsburgh, said he expects as many as 1 percent of mail ballots to be set aside for errors — a potentially difference-making sum in tight races such as the U.S. Senate contest. As of Monday, more than 1.1 million Pennsylvanians had cast ballots by mail, with about 70 percent of them Democrats.

The Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office has released the names of at least 7,000 voters whose ballots have been flagged for errors, but Levine said that number will grow through Election Day as more ballots arrive — and also because some counties have chosen not to review mail ballots, notify voters of errors or share the information with the state.

Caroline Gutman in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.