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Court issues extension for mail-in, absentee ballots

A ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has pushed back the date that counties must accept mail-in ballots in the upcoming election and required that any not in the secrecy envelope be “disqualified.”

The court handed down the ruling late last week.

The court took the case under special jurisdiction, saying the state is “faced with a national election scheduled to occur on November 3, 2020 and substantial legal issues that required the highest court of Pennsylvania’s analysis and response to ensure a free and fair election.”

The case was brought by state Democrats in response to a federal campaign brought by the Trump campaign.

Five specific items were resolved by the court — where mail-in ballots are to be delivered, whether the deadline for ballot receipt is attainable, how to handle ballots filled out incorrectly or not completely, whether a secrecy envelope is required and residency requirements for formal poll watchers.

“(W)e need not belabor our ultimate conclusion that the Election Code should be interpreted to allow county boards of election to accept hand-delivered mail-in ballots at locations other than their office addresses including drop-boxes,” the court’s majority opinion states on the delivery issue. “Thus… this Court declares that the Election Code permits county boards of election to accept hand-delivered mail-in ballots at locations other than their office addresses including drop-boxes.”

Shifting to the calendar change, all mail-in and absentee ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day and received by the county boards of elections by Nov. 6 — a three day extension — will be counted.

“We are fully cognizant that a balance must be struck between providing voters ample time to request mail-in ballots, while also building enough flexibility into the election timeline to guarantee that ballot has time to travel through the USPS delivery system to ensure that the completed ballot can be counted in the election,” the court found. “Moreover, the effects of the pandemic threatened the disenfranchisement of thousands of Pennsylvanians during the 2020 Primary, when several of the Commonwealth’s county election boards struggled to process the flow of mail-in ballot applications for voters who sought to avoid exposure to the virus.”

They found that the current deadlines “cannot be met by the USPS’s current delivery standards,” resulting in a system that will “unquestionably fail under the strain of COVID-19 and the 2020 Presidential Election.”

The court then ordered a “three day extension of the absentee and mail-in ballot received-by deadline to allow for the tabulation of ballots…. We observe that this extension provides more time for the delivery of ballots while also not requiring alteration of the subsequent canvassing and reporting dates necessary for the Secretary’s final reporting of the election results.”

On the secrecy envelope issue, Dems sought to count ballots not submitted inside the secrecy envelope.

The court did not agree.

“Upon careful examination of the statutory text, we conclude that the Legislature intended for the secrecy envelope provision to be mandatory,” the opinion states. “Whatever the wisdom of the requirement, the command that the mail-in elector utilize the secrecy envelope and leave it unblemished by identifying information is neither ambiguous nor unreasonable.”

Any ballots “not enclosed in the statutorily-mandated secrecy envelope must be disqualified.”

The court also did not change poll watcher requirements and did not suggest that counties needed to establish a procedure for incomplete or incorrect submitted ballots to be amended.

County officials discuss ruling

County officials are discussing just what a state Supreme Court ruling on the upcoming election means for how the presidential election will be conducted in Warren County.

The ruling invalidates “naked” mail-in and absentee ballots — those not returned in a secrecy envelope — extends the deadline for those ballots to be accepted by three days to Friday and permits county boards of elections to set up drop boxes for turning those ballots in.

Elections Director Lisa Rivett said voters “have until Friday to get them (mail-in and absentee) ballots to be but only through the mail.”

She cautioned that this is “not one of those things (where) they can come in and hand be a ballot. It has to be postmarked by the day of the election.”

She also highlighted that the ruling now requires that these ballots be received by the county in a secrecy envelope.

Rivett said she’s been informing people that call that ballots must be mailed or returned to her office. A drop box inside the Fifth Ave. entrance to the courthouse was used for the primary but not for the general at the advice of counsel.

Commissioner Jeff Eggleston raised the possibility of collection points — specifically mentioning municipality buildings — in an attempt to “give more options” to voters.

Rivett and Commissioner Ben Kafferlin expressed concerns about that possibility with Commissioner Tricia Durbin indicating she would prefer an approach to conducting the election that is as “ironclad” as possible.

“(I) don’t see the significant benefit,” Kafferlin added.

Rivett told the commissioners that the ballots are ready to be distributed with only the “final OK from the Department of State” needed.

She said roughly 5,000 absentee and mail-in ballots are set to be distributed in the county.

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