News & Politics

Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds mail-in voting law

The state’s high court says the 2019 law does not violate the state constitution.

County employee opens mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections.

County employee opens mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections. Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Pennsylvania’s highest court has upheld the state’s 2019 mail-in voting law, ruling that the measure does not violate the state constitution. The decision comes after a lower state court had previously tossed the law earlier this year.

In a 5-2 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the state constitution did not hamper the General Assembly’s ability to pass the 2019 law, which brought universal mail-in voting to the state and eliminated straight-ticket voting. 

The court refuted arguments that the state constitution requires voters to cast their ballots in-person unless they meet narrow constitutional criteria for absentee voting, writing in the majority opinion that state lawmakers have the ability “to prescribe any process by which electors may vote.”

“The Constitution does not restrain the legislature from designing a method of voting in which votes can be delivered by mail by qualified electors for canvassing,” Justice Christine Donohue wrote in the opinion. “The only restraint on the legislature’s design of a method of voting is that it must maintain the secrecy of the vote.” That secrecy, Donohue wrote, is present in Act 77. 

Two justices – Sallie Updyke Mundy and Kevin Brobson – dissented on the case. Mundy argued that the state constitution would need to be amended in order to permit mail-in voting in the commonwealth.

“I express no opinion as to whether no-excuse mail-in voting reflects wise public policy. That is not my function as a member of this state’s Judiciary,” Mundy wrote in her dissenting opinion. “My function is to apply the text of the Pennsylvania Constitution, understood in light of its history and judicial precedent. In so doing, I would hold that that venerable document must be amended before any such policy can validly be enacted.”

In addition to paving the way for mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, Act 77 also moved the state’s voter registration deadline closer to Election Day and provided funding to counties to update their election systems, among other changes. 

The law passed with bipartisan support in the General Assembly in October 2019, though many Democrats voted against the omnibus election reform bill, expressing concerns with language that ultimately eliminated the straight-ticket voting option. 

Republicans eventually soured on the law, arguing that the state Supreme Court unilaterally changed provisions of the state’s Election Code in 2020 when they issued a ruling on a separate case. House Speaker Bryan Cutler, in an op-ed published earlier this year, claimed the court “unconstitutionally acted to change the law for receiving and counting ballots.

On Tuesday, Democrats celebrated the state Supreme Court’s decision, which they said preserves a “safe” and “secure” voting option.

“Today’s court ruling definitively asserts that mail-in voting is a legal and constitutional method for Pennsylvania voters,” Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement. “By upholding the law, which the General Assembly approved in 2019 in a bipartisan manner, this ruling assures that mail-in voting remains in place and Pennsylvanians will be able to cast their ballot legally in person or by mail without any disruption or confusion.”

Government watchdog groups also praised the decision, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania calling the ruling “a victory for democracy.”

“We are gratified that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the law,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who added that his organization “will remain vigilant to challenge any further attempts to limit Pennsylvania voters’ ability to cast their ballots.”

Republicans, however, said the decision highlights the need to reform and clarify the state’s election laws. State Rep. Seth Grove, who chairs the House State Government Committee and has authored an omnibus election reform bill, stressed that the state’s Election Code needs improvements. 

“While some may celebrate this ruling and others denounce it, the reality is we still have election laws and processes that are failing our voters and election administrators,” Grove said in a statement. “Until we update our voting laws, Pennsylvania will continue to have chaos in our elections.”

Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, said the ruling places renewed importance on a set of proposed constitutional amendments that would bring universal voter ID and mandatory post-election audits to the state.  

The state Supreme Court’s majority decision can be read below.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decision on Challenge to Act 77 by City & State PA on Scribd