Lawsuit says Washington County deliberately hid decisions to invalidate some mail-in ballots

FILE - Mail-in and absentee ballots are seen at the elections warehouse in Pittsburgh, April 18, 2024. Elected commissioners in Washington County, Penn., were sued Monday, July 1, over a policy adopted for this year's primary in which people whose mail-in ballots were disqualified for technical violations were not informed in time to fix the errors. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

By Associated Press

July 2, 2024

A western Pennsylvania county’s elected commissioners were sued Monday over a policy adopted for this year’s primary in which people whose mail-in ballots were disqualified for technical violations say they were purposely not informed in time to fix errors.

Seven disqualified primary voters, the local NAACP branch and the Center for Coalfield Justice sued Washington County’s election board over what they called “systematic and deliberate efforts” to conceal the policy by directing elections office staff not to tell voters who called that they had made errors that prevented their votes from being counted.

The lawsuit filed in county common pleas court said the policy resulted in 259 voters being disenfranchised and many of those voters still do not realize it. The seven voters who are suing, ages 45 to 85, all had their mail-in ballots invalidated because of incomplete or missing dates, the lawsuit stated. One also failed to sign the exterior envelope and another signed in the wrong place.

“Because of the board’s actions, voters had no way of learning that their ballot would not be counted, and were deprived of the opportunity to protect their right to vote by taking advantage of an existing statutory process: voting by provisional ballot,” the lawsuit claimed.

The lawsuit seeks to have Washington County’s current policy declared unconstitutional as a violation of due process rights and to prevent the elections board from concealing information from voters and misleading them. It was filed by lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Public Interest Law Center and the Philadelphia-based law firm Dechert.

Washington County had notified voters their ballots were filled out incorrectly and gave those voters a chance to fix them until this year’s April 23 primary. For this year’s primary, the Washington commissioners voted 2-1 to not allow voters to cure improper ballots and had staff mark them in the statewide elections software as “received,” a status that does not tell voters their ballots won’t be counted. The two Republican commissioners were in favor, the Democrat opposed.

The lawsuit says no other county in Pennsylvania “actively conceals the insufficiency of a voter’s mail-in ballot submission, especially when a voter calls their county elections’ office to inquire whether their mail-in ballot meets the requirements and will be counted.”

Messages seeking comment were left Monday for Washington Board of Commissioners Chairman Nick Sherman, a Republican, and for the county’s lawyer, Gary Sweat. An ACLU lawyer said attempts to engage the commissioners on the issue drew no response.

Retired occupational therapist Bruce Jacobs, 65, one of the plaintiffs, said in a video news conference that the primary was long over by the time he learned his vote had been invalidated because he failed to sign and date the return envelope. He said he felt deceived and his rights were denied.

“County officials have eroded people’s rights to the dignity of our elections,” Jacobs said. “And I believe that this must change.”

Pennsylvania made access to mail-in ballots universal, a Democratic priority, under a 2019 law that also eliminated straight-party ticket voting, a Republican goal. The pandemic followed a few months later, fueling participation in mail-in voting. In the subsequent elections, Pennsylvania Democrats have been far more likely than Republicans to vote by mail.

The process has drawn a series of lawsuits, most notably over whether errors in filling out the exterior of the return envelope can invalidate the ballot. Earlier this year, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a mandate that the envelopes contain accurate, handwritten dates.

During the April primary, redesigned exterior envelopes reduced the rate of rejected ballots, according to state elections officials.

Older voters are disproportionately more likely to send in ballot envelopes with incorrect or missing dates, advocates have said.


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