What's at Stake
Pennsylvania mail ballot voters successfully challenged a rule that would have invalidated their votes because of a meaningless paperwork error on the return envelope.
Ritter arose out of the disenfranchisement of 257 Lehigh County voters as a result of a trivial paperwork mistake on the return envelopes containing their mail ballots. The ballots at issue were excluded based on a direction in state law that mail-ballot voters “fill out, date and sign” a form declaration on the outer envelope used to return mail ballots. Plaintiff Voters, all indisputably eligible and registered to vote, signed the return envelope form, and timely returned their ballots, which were then date-stamped by election officials to confirm their timeliness. But the Plaintiffs omitted a handwritten date on the Return Envelopes containing their ballots, leading those ballots to be set aside.
No one disputed that this handwritten date on the return envelope form has no bearing on a voter’s eligibility or the timeliness of their vote. Indeed, voters who wrote a date in the wrong place on the Return Envelope, or wrote a date that was clearly incorrect, had their ballots counted. Any string of numbers was accepted, without regard to its accuracy.
Plaintiff voters sued, claiming that disenfranchising voters for failure to handwrite a date whose content did not matter violates a provision of the federal Civil Rights Act that prohibits denying “the right of any individual to vote in any election” based on an “error or omission on any record or paper relating 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.” 52 U.S.C. § 10101(a)(2)(B).
A trial court dismissed their case on procedural grounds, holding that voters lack a so-called “private right of action” to challenge their own disenfranchisement under the Materiality Provision.
Plaintiff Voters, represented by the ACLU and ACLU-PA, appealed, winning an emergency injunction and ultimately a unanimous decision from a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that their votes must be counted. The court of appeals concluded that refusing to count Plaintiffs’ votes because they omitted an irrelevant handwritten date from the return envelope form violated the statute.
Ritter, a candidate for election in Lehigh County who had a narrow lead in the vote and didn’t want additional votes counted sought an emergency stay from the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent the 257 mail ballots from being counted. The Supreme Court, over the dissent of three justices, sided with the voters and denied the stay, allowing the appeals court’s decision to go into effect and the votes to be counted notwithstanding the immaterial omission of a handwritten date on the mail ballot the ballots were counted, and they changed the result of the contested judicial election.