A mail-in voting law is under attack by Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers who passed it

A mail-in voting law is under attack by Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers who passed it

1:59pm May 17, 2022
Election workers in Pennsylvania's Chester County review mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in West Chester, Pa. A number of Republican state lawmakers who helped pass a law that expanded mail-in voting are now suing to get it thro
Election workers in Pennsylvania's Chester County review mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in West Chester, Pa. A number of Republican state lawmakers who helped pass a law that expanded mail-in voting are now suing to get it thro
Matt Slocum / AP
  • Election workers in Pennsylvania's Chester County review mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in West Chester, Pa. A number of Republican state lawmakers who helped pass a law that expanded mail-in voting are now suing to get it thro

    Election workers in Pennsylvania's Chester County review mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in West Chester, Pa. A number of Republican state lawmakers who helped pass a law that expanded mail-in voting are now suing to get it thro

    Matt Slocum / AP

  • Pennsylvania state Rep. Dan Moul is one of 11 Republican lawmakers who filed a lawsuit last year that challenges the constitutionality of a mail-in voting law they helped pass in 2019.

    Pennsylvania state Rep. Dan Moul is one of 11 Republican lawmakers who filed a lawsuit last year that challenges the constitutionality of a mail-in voting law they helped pass in 2019.

    Julio Cortez / AP

Updated May 17, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET

It once had the backing of almost every Republican lawmaker in Pennsylvania's GOP-controlled legislature.

But after expanding mail-in voting to all voters in the key swing state, Pennsylvania's Act 77 is now under challenge by a group of GOP state representatives who are suing to throw out the 2019 law they helped pass.

In the wake of baseless attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting by former President Donald Trump and his allies, the lawsuit is part of a stark about-face from many Republicans around the country on what was once an uncontroversial way of voting.

While, for now, no-excuse voting by mail is still allowed in Pennsylvania — including for Tuesday's primary elections — the state's more than 8.7 million registered voters may find it harder to cast their ballots in November and for other future elections depending on how and when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules in the lawsuit.

The high court has been reviewing a lower court's ruling from January that sided with the Republican lawmakers and found the mail-in law in violation of the state's constitution.

Pennsylvania Republicans flipped on mail-in voting after the 2020 election

The result of a bipartisan deal led by the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, Act 77 had the state's top GOP leaders singing its praises when it became a law.

"Every bill we could pick some pieces that we don't like about it," said the then-state Senate majority leader, Jake Corman of Centre County, the day it secured unanimous support from Republican state senators in October 2019. "But I think ultimately, this is the most significant modernization of our election's code in decades."

These days, however, many Republican lawmakers have changed their tune.

Corman, who recently dropped out of the GOP primary for governor, has since called for ending no-excuse mail-in voting. And so has state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, a Trump-backed election denier who is the frontrunner in that governor's primary.

Act 77 also had the support of almost all of the Republican state representatives in the Pennsylvania House, including state Rep. Dan Moul, a Republican from Adams County who joined the lawsuit over the mail-in voting law in 2021.

"So my bad. I should've checked the constitutionality of that big bill," Moul says.

Moul is one of 11 Republicans in the state House who are claiming in the lawsuit that the mail-in voting provisions in Act 77 that they voted for three years ago are unconstitutional.

"We pass bills all the time. Do we go back and check every single one to make sure it stays within the confines of the constitution? We'd never get anything done if we did that," Moul says.

In court filings, the lawmakers argue that to change who can vote by absentee ballot in Pennsylvania requires changing the state's constitution.

But the governor's administration counters that the state constitution allows lawmakers to determine how voters can cast their ballots.

During oral arguments for the lawsuit in March, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty gave voice to the skepticism that voting rights advocates have about this case.

"Let's be candid," Dougherty said. "What it really looks like is that maybe some legislators are concerned because the no-excuse balloting, at least recently, shows that maybe one party votes overwhelmingly by mail-in ballot as opposed to another. So maybe this is an attack for supremacy at the ballot. I don't know."

Moul says there's no connection between this lawsuit and Trump's election loss in 2020. Instead, Moul points to a state Supreme Court ruling that year that extended the deadline for accepting mail-in ballots and allowed drop boxes during major Postal Service delays amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Had they had left it alone, we probably wouldn't be talking today," Moul says.

Millions of mail-in and absentee voters could lose access to the ballot box

Voters like Hassan Bennett are worried that depending on how the state Supreme Court rules, fewer citizens could have the ability to vote by absentee ballot, including those who are jailed in their hometown while waiting for a trial, like Bennett once was.

"They came to me with a ballot one day. It's a gasp of fresh air. It's empowering," says Bennett, who was wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit.

Now a bail navigator with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Bennett is part of a group of voters organized by the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania to help show the high court who exactly could be affected if mail-in voting is restricted.

Bennett says that absentee ballots have been an essential lifeline for many citizens in Pennsylvania's jails.

"Not only are they going to be more likely to vote, they're going to be more likely to advocate for other people to vote," he says. "And that's what democracy is all about — everybody's voice being heard."

Whether or not Molly Mahon's voice has been heard at the ballot box has depended largely on her work schedule.

As a nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Newborn/Infant Intensive Care Unit, Mahon often has to work 12-hour shifts on election days. The mail-in ballots she's been able to receive through Act 77, she says, have been "game-changing."

"It took the stress out of me having to schedule myself around Election Day and just ensured that I could vote," says Mahon, who remembers once rushing back to her neighborhood after work in an Uber only to find election workers closing down the local polling place.

Mahon says she's not sure yet if she'll be able to schedule time off to vote in person for November's election. But she hopes she will still have the option to vote by mail.

"The reality is, a lot of us, whoever is working on Election Day, if they're not using mail-in voting, they're most likely not voting," she adds.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Pennsylvania is one of five states holding their primaries tomorrow. In 2019, a Pennsylvania state law expanded which voters there can mail in their ballots. But Republicans across the country have turned against mail-in voting. And now a group of GOP lawmakers who helped pass the Pennsylvania law three years ago are suing to get it thrown out. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has the story.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: On Halloween 2019, Pennsylvania's Democratic governor made the newscast of Harrisburg's ABC27.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tom Wolf will sign an election reform bill today that would deliver...

WANG: The bill capped off a bipartisan deal that had the backing of almost every Republican lawmaker in the GOP-controlled legislature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The bill would allow voters to mail in ballots.

WANG: And not just some voters. Pennsylvania Act 77 allows all voters to mail in their ballots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE CORMAN: Every bill we could pick some pieces that we don't like about it.

WANG: One of the state's top Republicans, the then state Senate majority leader, Jake Corman, sang Act 77's praises in October 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORMAN: But I think ultimately, this is the most significant modernization of our election's code in decades.

WANG: These days, though, many Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have changed their tune. Corman, who recently dropped out of the Republican primary for governor, has since called for ending no-excuse mail-in voting. And so has state Senator Doug Mastriano, a frontrunner in that governor's primary who is backed by former President Donald Trump. There's also state Representative Dan Moul.

DAN MOUL: So my bad. I should've checked the constitutionality of that big bill.

WANG: Moul is one of 11 Republicans in the Pennsylvania state House who are arguing in a lawsuit that the mail-in voting provisions in Act 77 that they voted for three years ago violate the state's constitution.

MOUL: We pass bills all the time. Do we go back and check every single one to make sure it stays within the confines of the Constitution? We'd never get anything done if we did that.

WANG: In court filings, the lawmakers argue that to change who can vote by absentee ballot in Pennsylvania requires changing the state's constitution. But the governor's administration counters that the state constitution allows lawmakers to determine how voters can cast their ballots. The case is now at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Trump and his allies have baselessly attacked the integrity of mail-in voting. State Representative Dan Moul says there's no connection between Trump's loss in 2020 and this Pennsylvania lawsuit. Instead, Moul points to the state Supreme Court's ruling that extended the deadline for accepting mail-in ballots and allowed drop boxes during major postal service delays in 2020.

MOUL: Had they had left it alone, we probably wouldn't be talking today.

WANG: Voters like Hassan Bennett are worried that depending on how the high court rules, fewer citizens could have the ability to vote by absentee ballot, including those who are jailed in their hometown while waiting for a trial like Bennett once was.

HASSAN BENNETT: They came to me with a ballot one day. It's a gasp of fresh air. It's empowering.

WANG: Bennett, a bail navigator who was wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit, is part of a group of voters organized by local voting rights groups to help show the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who exactly could be affected if mail-in voting is restricted. Bennett says that absentee ballots have been an essential lifeline for many citizens in Pennsylvania's jails.

BENNETT: Not only are they going to be more likely to vote, they're going to be more likely to advocate for other people to vote. And that's what democracy is all about - everybody's voice being heard.

MOLLY MAHON: In order for our voices to be heard, we need to be able to have the same access to the ballot boxes as everybody else.

WANG: Molly Mahon is a nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who often has to work 12-hour shifts on election days. She's also part of the court filing in support of mail-in voting.

MAHON: The reality is, a lot of us, whoever is working on Election Day, if they're not using mail-in voting, they're most likely not voting.

WANG: Mahon says she's not sure yet if she'll be able to schedule time off to vote in person for November's election. And if she can't, whether her voice is heard through a mail-in ballot may be up to the courts.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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