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Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds no-excuse mail-in voting

The ruling comes three months ahead of the November general election, which features high-stakes, open-seat elections for governor and Senate.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — Upholding the legitimacy of a 2019 law that allows state residents to vote by mail without an excuse, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday stamped out a lower court’s determination that the legislation had been improperly introduced.

“We find no restriction in our Constitution on the General Assembly’s ability to create universal mail-in voting,” the 76-page ruling penned by Justice Christine Donohue states.

In January, just a few months out from a U.S. Senate primary race, a Pennsylvania appeals court struck down the law, known as Act 77, that lets voters cast their ballots by mail without justifying why they can't vote in person.

The law was originally championed as a bipartisan effort giving all Pennsylvanians more options on how and when to vote. It was pushed through by Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed by its Democratic Governor Tom Wolf in 2019.

Those bipartisan aspirations quickly disintegrated, however, when former President Donald Trump contested the legitimacy of mail-in ballots across the country during the 2020 presidential election in which Pennsylvania was a key swing state. The state’s mail-in ballots, tallied after in-person votes, pushed President Joe Biden over the threshold to victory.

Republican lawmaker Timothy Bonner filed the lawsuit at issue last August, joined by 13 other Republican members of the state House. Eleven of the 14 plaintiffs originally voted to pass the law.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, a midlevel state appeals court, found that the change should have been put on the ballot for the Keystone State’s voters to approve or deny. The 3-2 panel ruling was issued along party lines, with Republican judges in the majority. 

The decision was appealed immediately to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, triggering an automatic stay that kept the law in place during the state’s primary in May. 

On Tuesday, the state's highest court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority, also ruled along party lines, finding that the General Assembly did not overstep its authority or violate the Pennsylvania Constitution when it created the law in question. 

But in the same breath it backed the legitimacy of Act 77, the majority also noted that there’s nothing stopping future state lawmakers from rescinding the law.

“Whether or not Act 77’s universal mail-in provisions survive future legislatures, [it] guarantees the constitutionally designated qualified voters a way to exercise their franchise regardless of their location on Election Day,” the ruling states.

Justice Sallie Mundy, one of the court’s two Republicans, wrote in a dissenting opinion Tuesday that the majority’s decision failed “to come to grips with the fact that the Pennsylvania Constitution’s election-related provisions have been amended on numerous occasions in the 160 years since this Court first explained that by default it requires in-person voting.”

“In none of those instances have the people of this Commonwealth sought to eliminate, alter, or clarify the textual basis for that ruling as it appears in our organic law,” she added, noting she would have backed the appeals court’s stance.

Bonner’s attorney Greg Teufel of OGC Law said he and his clients were disappointed by the majority's decision in an email Tuesday.

“We plan to appeal to the United States Supreme Court,” he added.

The ACLU’s Pennsylvania executive director, Reggie Shuford, lauded the ruling in a statement Tuesday, emphasizing the importance of defending voting rights.

“Losing the right to vote puts us on a fast track to losing our democracy. We should be finding ways to expand the right to vote, not shrink it,” Shuford said. “Ensuring Pennsylvanians have the right to vote by mail is a proven way to do that.”

Governor Wolf said in a statement that the court’s decision ensures they will be able to cast their ballot legally in person or by mail without any disruption or confusion.

“I will continue to advocate for voting reforms that remove barriers and increase access to voting,” he said.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro also applauded the ruling.

“With this ruling, the Court has provided certainty to voters — certainty that however people cast their vote, in person or by mail, it will be counted,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “After two years of consistent attacks on our election system and our voters, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated loud and clear that Act 77, which modernized our election code, is constitutional.”

The decision comes three months ahead of November’s general election. Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey’s decision not to seek reelection in 2022 has opened the door for Democrat John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s current lieutenant governor, and Republican cardiothoracic surgeon and TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz to fill the seat.

Fetterman, a 6-foot-8-inch Pennsylvanian known for dressing in shorts and sweatshirts, won the Democratic primary handily, after suffering a stroke that landed him in the hospital the weekend before May 17 Election Day. Oz meanwhile won about a third of the vote, just a few hundred votes ahead of his closest opponent, hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, who conceded to Oz on June 3.

Pennsylvania’s 2022 elections will also put up two new names for governor: Shapiro, a Democrat, and Republican Trump supporter Doug Mastriano.

Shapiro won as the only candidate on the ballot for Democrats for governor. He had been endorsed by Wolf, who will reach the end of his maximum two terms in office this year. Shapiro, who has been Pennsylvania’s attorney general since 2017, has shored up widespread support from his party, due in part to his popularity with voters. Not having to spend against competitors in the primary, the Democrat has around $15.8 million on hand going into November, according to the Department of State.

Mastriano, a Trump supporter who has drawn widely from the former president’s support base, was actually in the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol when the insurrection occurred on Jan. 6, 2021. Shadowing Trump’s positions, he’s amplified conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election and opposed pandemic-related shutdowns, vaccines, masks and other precautions. 

Because the Pennsylvania governor is responsible for tapping a secretary of state to oversee elections, the results could reverberate into the 2024 presidential race, which Trump is teasing to run in.

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