(Credit: Erin Ninehouser/Rustbelt Mayberry Photography)

Act 77, the election law that created vote-by-mail in 2019, has made voting easier for Pennsylvania voters. Passed just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the law gave voters another option besides going to the polls in person. Millions of Pennsylvanians have taken advantage of the convenience of voting by mail.

But for thousands of voters in every election, an error on a meaningless requirement has meant that their ballots have been disqualified. Trivial errors on the ballot return envelopes, like not including a handwritten date on the outer return envelope, led to more than 10,000 uncounted votes in the 2022 election alone. 

Whether your vote counts should not depend on the precision of a meaningless handwritten date. Mail ballots must be received by the county election office by 8 p.m. on Election Day, regardless of the date written on the envelope. Staff at the county elections office know if they’ve received your ballot by the deadline; whether or not you included a handwritten date on the outer return envelope is irrelevant to the fact that your ballot is in their hands in time to be counted.

So we’re doing something about it, to make sure these voters have their ballots counted. In May of this year, Black Political Empowerment Project, POWER Interfaith, Make the Road Pennsylvania, OnePA Activists United, New PA Project Education Fund, Casa San José, Pittsburgh United, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, and Common Cause Pennsylvania, represented by ACLU-PA, the Public Interest Law Center, and volunteer attorneys from the law firm Arnold and Porter,  sued Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt and election officials in Philadelphia and Allegheny County. Our claim? The handwritten date rule undermines voters’ rights protected by the free and equal elections clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

While the case is directed at just two counties, a decision would apply to all counties and all voters. We want the court to stop the counties from enforcing the handwritten date rule. We want the court to recognize the voters’ constitutional right to vote.

The handwritten date rule unfairly impacts specific groups. Older adults are much more likely to have errors on their exterior envelope; voters with reading disabilities may transpose numbers; voters who grew up overseas may be accustomed to writing dates in different orders than the American style and, thus, unfairly silenced. 

These are eligible and important voters, and their stories are common. Consider some of the  voters who are witnesses in our lawsuit:

Joanne Sowell, an Allegheny County voter who rarely misses an election, received an email notifying her that her ballot in this year’s primary election would be rejected for an incorrect date. She was already aboard an airplane to leave Pennsylvania for a cruise vacation when she saw the message and, thus, had no opportunity to cure the mistake or vote provisionally.

“When I returned from my trip, the returned ballot was waiting at my house, but it was too late to fix it,” she wrote in her declaration for the lawsuit. “I am very upset that my ballot will not count because nobody’s ballot should get rejected for a trivial . . . mistake. When I received the email, it really bothered me for a few days because the date shouldn’t matter; it’s what’s inside the ballot that counts.”

“I don’t believe that the date serves any purpose,” said Joe Sommar, a Chester County voter who also had his ballot disqualified in the 2024 primary election. “The county knows that my ballot was received on time, and I don’t know why the date is necessary. It seems like an arbitrary thing, just another step to allow people to mess up and have their votes not counted.”

Counties already ensure ballot timeliness; the handwritten date requirement is unnecessary. We want every timely, legal ballot to be counted. Let people vote.