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Writing the wrong date on your mail-in ballot in Pa. could get your vote thrown out, judges rule

Writing the wrong date on your mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania could get your vote thrown out
Writing the wrong date on your mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania could get your vote thrown out 01:05

PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) — A panel of federal judges ruled on Wednesday to uphold the enforcement of dates on mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania.

A divided 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it was permissible for Pennsylvania to require correct handwritten dates on outer envelopes on mail-in ballots, overturning a lower court ruling that sided in favor of voting rights advocates - who argued tossing ballots with wrong dates ran afoul of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The ruling in the case NAACP v. Schmidt, brings the return of a technical mandate that caused thousands of votes to be declared invalid in the 2022 election. The state said many voters wrote their birthdate on the envelope when they should have been writing the date prior to Election Day that they filled out the ballot.

The total number of votes that have been thrown out is a small fraction of the large state's electorate, but the court's ruling puts additional attention on Pennsylvania's election procedures ahead of the battleground state's primary election being held on April 23.

How to properly fill out a mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania

In the video above, Montgomery County Director of Voter Services Dori Sawyer shows you how to properly fill out a mail-in ballot. Once voters make their selections, they are required to:

  • Put the ballot in an inner security envelope
  • Place that envelope in the outer envelope with the fields to sign and date
  • Properly sign and date the ballot - with the date you filled it out, not your birthdate
  • Mail it to your county elections office (no postage required) - or if too close to Election Day, your county may offer a mail-in ballot dropbox

The court ruling is the latest in a legal battle over the dates on these mail-in ballot envelopes.

A lower court judge had ruled in November that even without the proper dates, mail-in ballots should be counted if they are received in time. U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter said the envelope date is irrelevant in helping elections officials decide whether a ballot was received in time or if a voter is qualified.

But in the appeals court's opinion, Judge Thomas Ambro said the section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that the lower court relied upon does not pertain to ballot-casting rules broadly, such as dates on envelopes, but "is concerned only with the process of determining a voter's eligibility to cast a ballot."

"The Pennsylvania General Assembly has decided that mail-in voters must date the declaration on the return envelope of their ballot to make their vote effective," Ambro wrote. "The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania unanimously held this ballot-casting rule is mandatory; thus, failure to comply renders a ballot invalid under Pennsylvania law."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which helped represent groups and voters who challenged the date mandate, argued the Civil Rights Act "prohibits disqualifying voters due to paperwork mistakes on required forms that aren't relevant to the voters' eligibility."

In a statement, the ACLU said the ruling could mean thousands of votes won't be counted over what it called a meaningless error.

"We strongly disagree with the panel majority's conclusion that voters may be disenfranchised for a minor paperwork error like forgetting to write an irrelevant date on the return envelope of their mail ballot," Ari Savitzky, a lawyer with the ACLU's Voting Rights Project who argued the appeal, said in a statement. 

The groups did not immediately say if they would contest the ruling further.

"We are considering all of our options at this time," Savitsky added.

Common Cause Pennsylvania issued this statement about the ruling: 

"This ruling means that counties will be permitted to throw out ballots that were submitted in time, for reasons irrelevant to the voters' eligibility to vote. We are disheartened by this ruling and maintain our position that every voter who makes the effort to participate should have their vote counted. But our work will continue regardless. Though this ruling will undoubtedly have a negative impact on elderly voters and voters of color, we will work with partners to ensure that voters across the state of Pennsylvania know how to make sure their votes are counted."

State and national Republican groups defended the date requirement, and the Republican National Committee called the decision a "crucial victory for election integrity and voter confidence."

In Pennsylvania, Democrats have been far more likely to vote by mail than Republicans under an expansion of mail-in ballots enacted in 2019.

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