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September 2, 2020

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed legislation today making major changes to the commonwealth’s election laws, a move that the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania fears will create confusion for voters and could lead to people being disenfranchised in November’s election.

Closely tracking a federal lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign, the bill prohibits counties from setting up drop boxes where voters can submit their mail-in and absentee ballots. The bill also allows poll watchers to travel anywhere in the state to monitor polling activity and challenge voters. Current law requires poll watchers to reside in the same county as the polling location that they will be observing.

In addition, the bill moves up the deadline to apply for a mail or absentee ballot to 15 days before the election, a change from the current deadline of seven days before election day.

“We are two months out from the most consequential election in living memory, and the majority in the state House is trying to make major changes to the rules at the last minute to make it harder for people to vote,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This is no way to run a democracy.

“In normal times, politicians should not create burdens for voters. In a pandemic, at a minimum, it’s a matter of public health.”

The General Assembly is considering the legislation at a time when multiple lawsuits in both state and federal courts are weighing some of the same questions that HB 2626 addresses. President Trump’s campaign filed a lawsuit in federal district court in western Pennsylvania against the commonwealth and all 67 counties that challenges counties’ use of drop boxes and seeks to expand the criteria of eligible poll watchers. Last week, the judge in that case announced that consideration of the Trump campaign’s claims would be delayed until October 5.

Meanwhile, the state Democratic party has active litigation in state court seeking interpretations of several issues in the elections code, including the legality of drop boxes for mail and absentee ballots. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania announced that it will consider the Democrats’ case.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is co-counsel representing several advocacy groups and voters who have intervened in both the Trump case and the Democrats’ lawsuit.

“In other states, secure drop boxes play an important role in facilitating voting by mail,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “There is no rational argument against an easier voting process for every eligible voter.

“And, with America’s history of voter suppression, it is a recipe for voter intimidation and disenfranchisement to allow people to travel to any county anywhere in the state to observe and challenge people at the polls. That voter suppression will most likely be aimed at people of color.”

In addition to the provisions that have drawn the ire of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and other voting rights advocates, House Bill 2626 makes other revisions to election law that stakeholders generally agree would create a smoother process in election administration, including allowing county elections staff to open and prepare submitted mail and absentee ballots for counting three days before election day and allowing poll workers to be stationed at any precinct in their home county.

With today’s passage in the state House, HB 2626 now heads to the state Senate for consideration.