Pennsylvania voters try to cast new ballots after GOP lawsuit
“Oh, I’m going to vote. That’s not the question,” said Smith, a 59-year-old Democrat who said he sees the court ruling as part of an attempt to block the vote. “I’ll talk you out of it.”
Multiple judges have ruled in the past two years that ballots returned on time by Pennsylvania voters should be counted even if they are missing the date on the outer envelope. Republicans sued in October to reverse the policy, arguing it violated state law. Last Tuesday, they won a favorable ruling from the state Supreme Court, which ordered counties not to count ballots with missing or incorrect dates.
That decision sparked a major volunteer effort to make sure voters who have already returned their ballots know their votes won’t count if they don’t take action.
Nowhere was that effort more intense than in Philadelphia. On Saturday, city officials released the names of more than 2,000 voters who returned invalid ballots and invited them to come to City Hall to cast a new ballot in the days leading up to Election Day. Social activists and volunteers from the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party started calling, texting and knocking on doors to get the word out.
On Monday, the line to vote for the replacement at City Hall wound its way out the front and into the building’s courtyard as volunteers provided snacks and bottled water, according to voters and activists.
“I’m happy. 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 just took one look at the line and said no way.”
Penina Bernstein said she was thousands of miles away in Colorado when she learned — from friends and strangers who contacted her via Facebook — that her ballot was undated and would not be counted. She immediately made plans to return to Pennsylvania to vote.
“I’m flying home tonight and I’ll be there tomorrow to fix it, because my voice will not be silenced by voter suppression,” said Bernstein, 40, who added that she is not wealthy and travels at considerable expense.
Several volunteers said they spoke with many other voters who said they wouldn’t be able to get to City Hall to pick up their ballots because of disabilities or lack of transportation.
Voter contact mobilization is a decentralized, ad hoc effort conducted by many different groups. While some voters told The Washington Post they had been contacted multiple times about their ballots, others said they had heard nothing until a reporter called them.
“Our fear is that there will probably be several thousand Philadelphians who tried to vote legally and their votes will not be counted,” said Benjamin Abella, an emergency room physician who has volunteered with a group of physician colleagues working to inform voters that they need to fix their ballot papers.
Abella said the efforts of his group and others represented a grassroots mobilization to compensate for the government’s lack of effort to contact voters individually. He said voters who managed to make it to City Hall found few workers ready to receive them – which is why there were 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 efforts to help voters complete their ballots have been strong since Sunday, with 250 people signing up for a phone bank session Monday night. The party programmed voters’ names, type of absentee ballot and county of residence into software that creates a custom script for volunteers to contact voters.
Several voters told The Post they had not received any notification from city officials. Nick Custodio, a deputy city commissioner, said Philadelphia officials placed an automated call to voters whose numbers they had. But otherwise, he said, “we’re focused on tomorrow’s election.”
City officials announced that voters could switch seats at City Hall until Monday at 5 p.m. But around 3:45, officials told some people in line that they would not come to the office before closing time and could not vote, according to Abella, who was there.
The decision upset some people, and sheriff’s deputies came to enforce the decision. City Commissioner Seth Bluestein, a Republican, tweeted that it was “disgraceful” that voters were put in the position of trying to heal their ballots at the last minute. City officials are “doing the best they can to help as many constituents as possible with very little time and resources,” he wrote.
Not all counties in Pennsylvania notify voters when their ballots are insufficient and allow them to submit a replacement. Courts have found that state law does not require counties to give voters an opportunity to correct defective ballots, but that does not prevent them from doing so either.
In Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, officials posted lists of more than 1,000 names of voters with undated or incorrectly dated ballots. Just over 100 cast their ballots Monday, according to city officials.
Darrin Kelly, president of the AFL-CIO’s Pittsburgh branch, said his membership accounts for 147 voters whose ballots were dropped off there. Its volunteer phone bankers had contacted about 100 of them by 5pm on Monday and expected to hear them all by the end of the evening.
“The most important thing is to protect our democracy and make sure everyone has the opportunity to vote,” said Kelly, who assumed most of his members were Democrats.
At a public meeting of the Lancaster County Board of Elections Monday, a citizen urged the board to notify voters who cast invalid ballots and allow them to cast another ballot, saying otherwise would be disenfranchising neighbors. One of the board members said he agreed, but the other two did not.
“We have never cured the ballots in Lancaster County. It’s a questionable procedure,” said Joshua G. Parsons, a county commissioner and board member. “It’s a questionable procedure.”
In Monroe County in northeastern Pennsylvania, Republicans sued last week in an attempt to block officials from inspecting ballots before Election Day, the first step in the county’s efforts to ensure that voters who returned ballots with errors — such as missing signatures or dates – have the opportunity to exchange. A state judge denied that request on Monday.
Meanwhile, the fight over undated and misdated ballots is not over. When the state Supreme Court ordered counties not to count those ballots, it also ordered them to set those ballots aside and preserve them — apparently in anticipation of more court cases. On Friday, several voting and rights groups filed suit in federal court, arguing that not counting those ballots because of a “nonsensical technicality” would violate civil rights laws.
Clifford Levine, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic election attorney, said he expects as much as 1 percent of mail-in ballots to be set aside for errors — a potentially large sum in tight races like the U.S. Senate. As of Monday, more than 1.1 million Pennsylvanians had voted by mail, 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 were flagged for errors, but Levine said that number will grow by Election Day as more ballots arrive — and also because some counties choose not to review mail ballots, notify voters of errors, or share information with the state.
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