A Win for Voters – PA Supreme Court Rules on Voting Issues

Posted Sep 18, 2020, by Ethan Story

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Photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash

On June 2, 2020, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania held its first primary election since enacting Act 77, all during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the main changes that Act 77 gave to voters was the ability to request mail-in ballots with no particular reason. Before Act 77, Pennsylvania had a system for absentee voting, but these ballots were contingent upon having an apparent reason for not voting in person. Even though the goals of Act 77 were to make voting more accessible, not everyone was pleased with how the state ran the primary election. In response, several lawsuits have been filed against multiple parties in the state of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party brought one of these lawsuits against the Secretary of Pennsylvania and all 67 county election boards claiming that they mishandled mail-in ballots during the June primary.

Pennsylvania Democratic Party v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party (PDP) filed suit against the Secretary of Pennsylvania and all 67 county election boards on how they handled the Commonwealth’s vote-by-mail process during the June primary. The case was initially brought in Commonwealth court. However, due to the timing of its issues, it was escalated to the state’s highest court, the PA Supreme Court.

The PDP argues that in the middle of such a life-threatening pandemic, the Commonwealth and its voters need the rights granted under Act 77 more than ever. Using case law to strengthen their argument, the PDP explains that the poll watcher’s requirement is valid and was not changed under Act 77. Poll watchers monitor election administration and, at times, keep track of the voter turnout for their party. Under Act 77, poll-watchers are only allowed to work in the county they are registered to vote.

The PDP also argues that counties should be allowed to address their population’s needs by creating their own ballot collection plans, which is also allowed per our election laws. Ballot collection plans include provisions such as using satellite ballot boxes – similar to mail  collection boxes but specifically for ballots. The PDP also asks that the court allow all ballots postmarked by the day of the election to be accepted after the polls close. Though this can slow the final results, it eases the pressure on both the post office and ballot counters in a time where mail-in voting is at its highest. After considering the arguments of all parties involved, the state Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority, favored several of the PDP’s requests.


The court upheld the state’s current poll-watcher law. Therefore, all poll watchers appointed by their political party who sit inside a polling place to monitor election activity must be registered voters from that county.

Drop-off Ballot Boxes

The court granted the use of satellite election offices and drop boxes by the counties. This is a massive win for PA voters. This will alleviate the influx of mail-in ballots that the postal service must deliver and the election offices must process.

Postmark and Acceptance

The state Supreme Court granted the PDP’s request to extend how long election offices have to accept a mailed-in ballot.  For these ballots to count, they must be postmarked by the time polls close (on Nov. 3)  and be in possession of the county election boards by 5 p.m. on November 6.


  • Ethan Story

    Ethan comes to CCJ with a J.D. and a Master of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. While attending Vermont Law School, Ethan worked as a Research Associate with the Water and Justice Program. In this role, he worked with diverse stakeholders to help protect their access to reliable, clean water. Ethan also interned with the PA Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania Environmental Council, where he worked on issues ranging from coal and oil and gas development to water treatment facilities. He has been published on the subjects of public trust, water rights, and other environmental issues. When he is not at work, he spends time with his family, running, and fly fishing one of PA’s many beautiful rivers. Contact Ethan at ethan@centerforcoalfieldjustice.org.

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