The Lead

Counties can’t toss ballots based on signature discrepancies, Pa. Supreme Court rules

By: - October 23, 2020 4:11 pm

Pennsylvania Supreme Court chambers in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo)

(*This story was updated on 10/23/20 with a statement from Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.)

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Friday that counties can’t toss out mail-in ballots based on perceived discrepancies in voter signatures, settling a key voting question just 11 days before the Nov. 3 general election.

The seven court justices were unanimous in their support for the petition brought by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who told the court in October that voters could be disenfranchised if counties relied on signature analysis methods to judge the authenticity of their ballots.

Pennsylvanians who cast ballots by mail are required to sign a voter’s declaration on the outside of their ballot envelope. County election officials have compared those signatures to ones on record in voting files, sometimes tossing ballots where they identified a mismatch. 

Voting rights groups that have challenged the practice say that county officials aren’t trained in signature verification, and that their inconsistent methods for analyzing penmanship could lead them to wrongly set aside ballots.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Debra Todd, the court concludes that state law “does not impose a duty on county boards to compare signatures” on ballots to those in voter files. 

They also argued that doing so would conflict with the legislature’s actions last year to expand access to mail-in voting statewide. 

The justices ruled over the objections of Republican leaders from the state House and Senate, who argued that it’s up to the legislature, and not the courts, to set Pennsylvania’s election laws. 

Senate majority leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, denounced the ruling on Friday afternoon, saying in a prepared statement that “people voting in person are now being held to a higher [security] standard than those who mail in their ballots.”

All but one justice joined Todd’s opinion. Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy concurred with the ruling, meaning she supported Todd’s finding but did not sign on to her argument. 

Boockvar asked the court in October to exercise its Kings Bench authority to determine whether counties could toss ballots based on signature analysis.

She brought the case to the court after a voting rights group sued her office this summer, arguing that shoddy signature verification methods disenfranchised voters in the June 2 primary election. 

Counties across the state tossed a combined 26,000 ballots in that election for reasons including penmanship errors, that lawsuit alleged. 

The Department of State has already instructed counties not to conduct its own signature analysis to toss mail-in ballots. 

But Boockvar argued in her Supreme Court petition that some counties might disregard her agency’s guidelines, and asked for a firmer interpretation of the state election code. 

The conflict over signature verification methods is just one of several critical election-related disputes that has been resolved in Pennsylvania’s high court this year. 

The court ordered counties in September to count ballots they receive up until Nov. 6, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. That ruling also cleared the way for counties to use secure ballot drop boxes and satellite voting sites to collect mail-in ballots. 

The Pa. Supreme Court ruled on critical election questions Thursday. Here’s what you need to know

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.