The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that undated mail-in ballots can be counted in a contested Pennsylvania local election.
This decision could have major implications for close races in November’s midterm elections and beyond.
The Court restored a federal appeals court order that said disqualifying ballots received on time but lacking a handwritten date on the return envelope was a violation of federal voting rights.
Pennsylvania state law mandates that voters include a date next to the signature despite mail ballots being postmarked and dated again by election officials when they are received.
The appeals court said not having the handwritten date was an “immaterial” error.
Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch dissented.
“When a mail-in ballot is not counted because it was not filled out correctly, the voter is not denied ‘the right to vote.’ Rather, that individual’s vote is not counted because he or she did not follow the rules for casting a ballot,” Alito wrote.
The Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for a Pennsylvania county to count mail-in ballots that do not comply with a state law requiring voters to write the date on the ballot’s envelope. Although the case arose from a single local judicial race, it raised broader issues about how federal voting-rights protections apply when voters fail to meet state clerical requirements — a conflict that may crop up again in this year’s midterm elections.
In an unsigned and unexplained order, the justices rejected an emergency appeal from a Republican candidate who currently holds a narrow lead in a 2021 race for a judgeship on a Lehigh County trial court. The candidate, David Ritter, wanted the justices to block the local board of elections from counting ballots that were received by Election Day but arrived in undated envelopes.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the ruling, in a five-page opinion that was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. He urged the court to take up the case on the merits and fast-track it for an argument in October so that it can resolve the issue before the November elections.
The dispute, Ritter v. Migliori, stemmed from a race last fall for three positions on the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas.
The Third Circuit Ruled:
“This judgment is issued at the direction of the Court pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 36(a)(2). This cause came to be considered on the record from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and was argued on May 18, 2022.
“On consideration whereof, it is now hereby ORDERED and ADJUDGED by this Court that the judgment of the District Court entered on March 16, 2022, is reversed insofar as it found Appellants lack the capacity to bring suit under 52 U.S.C. § 10101 as there exists a private right of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284–85 (2002).
“In addition, inasmuch as there is no dispute that ballots that have the wrong date were counted in the election, it is further ORDERED and ADJUDGED that, the dating provisions contained in 25 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 3146.6(a) and 3150.16(a) are immaterial under § 10101(a)(2)(B).
“Accordingly, there is no basis on this record to refuse to count undated ballots that have been set aside in the November 2, 2021, election for Judge of the Common Pleas of Lehigh County.
“This matter is hereby remanded to the District Court and that court is hereby directed to forthwith enter an order that the undated ballots be counted,” the appeals court said.