Press Release: Washington County Voters Bring Legal Action Against County for Mail Ballot Disqualification

Posted Jul 1, 2024, by Lisa DePaoli

Ballot Curing Press Conference Graphic

Washington County Voters Bring Legal Action Against County for Mail Ballot Disqualification


Washington County concealed information from voters about minor errors on their mail ballot return envelopes



Contact: Jonathan McJunkin, Public Interest Law Center, 570-337-1969, jmcjunkin@pubintlaw.org
Andy Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 717-238-2258 x213, ahoover@aclupa.org

Washington, Pa. – Today, seven voters, the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), and the Washington Branch NAACP filed a lawsuit against Washington County over the board of elections’ new policy to deliberately conceal information about which voters had made disqualifying errors on their mail-in ballot envelopes and to affirmatively mislead many voters into thinking their mail-in ballots would be counted.

The board’s new policy was a reversal of its prior policy and ensured that 259 voters were disenfranchised in the recent primary election. In addition, the board even instructed its election office staff not to provide any information about disqualifying errors in mail ballot packets, even if the voter were to call the office to inquire.

With no way to learn that their mail-in ballot had been canceled, the voters had no opportunity to salvage their right to vote by voting a provisional ballot at their polling place.

The seven voters, CCJ, and the NAACP branch are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Public Interest Law Center, and Dechert LLP.

“I thought I had done everything correctly when I voted by mail in this year’s primary election, but I made a mistake. I had forgotten to sign and date the outer envelope,” said Bruce Jacobs, a Washington County resident and longtime voter. “Washington County election officials knew I made a mistake when they received my ballot. They knew that they would reject my ballot because of this mistake. I wish county officials had respected me, as an American with a fundamental right to vote, and given me a chance to address my error.”

Before the 2024 primary election, the Washington County board of elections ended its existing notice-and-cure policy for mail ballots. In previous elections, the county had alerted voters who had submitted ballot declarations with easily correctable errors, including incorrect or missing handwritten dates on the outside envelope, and provided an opportunity to correct the mistake to ensure the ballot would be counted.

In neighboring Fayette and Allegheny Counties, where voters are given the opportunity to correct errors through a “notice and cure” process, 50% of voters or more do correct these errors so their votes can count.

“No government official or agency should knowingly disenfranchise its voters,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The board’s decision to conceal the true status of returned mail ballots with minor but disqualifying errors resulted in needless disenfranchisement. If Washington County provided accurate and timely information about voters’ mail-in ballot status, many of the 259 disenfranchised voters likely could have preserved their votes.”

After the board changed its policy ahead of the April primary, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Law Center sent a letter urging it to revert the policy, or at the very least, use the existing statewide registration database system so that voters would be automatically notified by email.

“The right to vote is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy and the right from which all others flow,” said Mimi McKenzie, legal director at the Public Interest Law Center. “The Washington board’s refusal to tell voters they made a mistake, and, in fact, to affirmatively mislead voters, is an assault on democracy. County boards of election should support voting, not obstruct it.”

The lawsuit, Center for Coalfield Justice et al v. Washington County Board of Elections, has been filed in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas. The plaintiffs argue that the county violated the voters’ procedural due process rights. Lawyers will soon file a preliminary injunction motion to hasten the decisionmaking process to ensure appellate courts have time before voting begins to review the issue.

“It should not be this easy for elected officials to strip 259 people of their votes, their voices in our political system,” said Sarah Martik, executive director at Center for Coalfield Justice. “The board’s reversal of their policy and lack of transparency was a deliberate obstruction. If this policy remains for the November election, it will cause confusion and disillusionment among voters exercising their constitutional rights.”

“The people of Washington County have every right to have their voices heard, through their votes,” said David Gatling, president of the Washington Branch NAACP. “The county’s board of elections has deliberately withheld information from its constituents, knowing that it would lead to the disqualification of their ballots. We’re a part of this lawsuit because we want to be sure that every vote is counted.”

More information about the case is available at aclupa.org/washingtoncounty and pubintlaw.org/we-sent-a-letter-to-washington-county-urging-them-to-notify-voters-of-mail-in-ballot-clerical-mistakes/



  • Lisa DePaoli

    Lisa (Coffield) DePaoli joined the CCJ staff in 2018 and is now our Communications Director. She grew up in rural Washington County, has family in both Washington and Greene Counties, and has always loved animals and spending time outdoors. A first-generation and nontraditional college student, her deep interest in human beings and ecology led her to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2012. She has worked on research projects and taught at the university level in the U.S. and in field schools in Latin America. The knowledge and experience she gained increased her concern for environmental and social justice issues, which she believes are best addressed at the local level, or from the "bottom up," including the voices of those who are most impacted. Lisa works to understand issues from the local to the global, seeks to make a positive difference, and loves to talk to people about what interests or concerns them. In her free time, she enjoys reading, spending time with her family, furkids, and friends, and walking in the woods with her dogs. Contact Lisa at lisa@centerforcoalfieldjustice.org.

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