(Credit: Ben Bowens Photo)

Voting by mail should be as simple as casting your ballot in person. County elections offices exist to be a resource to you and should certainly never be an obstacle to making your voice heard. 

Washington County has made itself an obstacle. 

In previous elections, the Washington County board of elections worked with voters to ensure that they had not made insignificant errors on their envelopes that would disqualify their votes. Things like forgetting to write the date or sign, writing the wrong date, or forgetting the secrecy envelope could lead to not counting the vote but often are easily fixed if a voter learns of the problem before Election Day. 

Ahead of the 2024 primary election, the Washington County board of elections, in a 2-1 vote, abruptly changed policy to prevent voters from curing the simple (but all too common!) and easily fixable mail-in ballot problems.  

Consequently, the ballots of voters who made small errors just on their outer mailing envelope were not counted, and they had no information or opportunity to salvage their votes by, for instance, voting a provisional ballot at their polling place on Election Day. 

When we learned weeks before Election Day about this plan, we and our friends at the Public Interest Law Center sent a letter urging them to reconsider. They never responded and kept the new policy, despite widespread public criticism.  

Before April 2024, the county had run a successful, helpful and democratic process to prevent mail ballot voters from being needlessly disenfranchised. The election board’s only goals in changing course could have been to make voting by mail harder and to strip some qualified voters of their votes based on minor errors that did not affect the integrity of elections. In other words, to create obstacles to voting. There is no legitimate legal or policy reason to erect these barriers against your constituents.

The new policy led to the disenfranchisement of 259 voters in the low-turnout 2024 primary election. In counties that alerted voters to their errors, voters corrected about 60 or more percent of the defective ballots, meaning if Washington had done this more than 150 of the county’s voters wouldn’t have been disenfranchised. This includes our group of seven bipartisan voter plaintiffs, some of whom have lived, worked and voted in Washington County for decades.

The Washington Branch NAACP and Center for Coalfield Justice, along with seven voters who were silenced, are suing the county to ensure that all eligible voters are able to cast a ballot easily and without government-sanctioned hurdles. Democratic institutions must be on the side of the voters and use their resources to ensure every vote is counted. 

This isn’t a partisan political issue; it’s an issue of democracy. Eligible and qualified voters – regardless of party registration, where they live, what they look like or social status – shouldn’t have their vote subject to a game of gotcha, in which they lose their vote for making a silly, inconsequential mistake in delivering their mail ballot that is easily and securely fixable. 

Most Pennsylvania counties, including neighboring Fayette, Greene, Allegheny and Beaver, help ensure voters making these mistakes have a chance to preserve their votes.

ACLU and the Law Center will proudly and aggressively represent the interests of all voters in Washington County.