Pennsylvania is being sued over its absentee ballot deadline. Why is it so strict in the first place?

Pennsylvania has the earliest deadline in the country, which effectively disenfranchises voters, the suit claims.

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Sarah Anne Hughes

Nearly a dozen Pennsylvania voters, with help from the ACLU, are suing the state over its absentee ballot deadline.

Pennsylvania has the earliest deadline in the country — absentee ballots are due by 5 p.m. four days before Election Day — which effectively disenfranchises voters and violates the state and U.S. constitutions, the suit claims. Some voters don’t even receive properly requested ballots until after the deadline to return them has passed.

So why is Pennsylvania’s deadline like this in the first place? Blame the state’s 1937 Election Code, which has only been sporadically updated since then.

Maybe in 1937, when the Postal Service made twice-daily deliveries, this narrow window was reasonable, said David Thornburgh, president of the good-government nonprofit Committee of Seventy. But now, “this deadline it just doesn’t work.”

There have been attempts to change it legislatively. State Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County last year introduced a bill that would push the deadline to Election Day. Like proposed voting reform in both chambers, it never moved out of the State Government committee.

“Sadly we’re in an era where everything is viewed through a highly partisan lens,” Thornburgh said, adding that proposals that would benefit voters are instead seen as a tactic to benefit parties.

But it’s voters — thousands of them — who are hurt by the current law. According to data from the Pa. Department of State cited in the suit, “more than 300,000 absentee ballots have not been returned by voters who submitted absentee ballot applications in Pennsylvania elections between 2009 and the 2018 primary election. That includes approximately 46,000 absentee ballots in each of the November 2016 and November 2012 elections.”

Increasingly, voters and organizations looking for reform are turning to the courts. Pennsylvania’s infamously gerrymandered congressional districts were remedied not through the legislature but by the state Supreme Court.

Judges in Pennsylvania are elected as opposed to appointed, which led to accusations of partisan overreach on the court’s part. Nearly a dozen state Republicans called for the impeachment of Democrat justices.

Without the courts, “there are ways to solve this problem,” Thornburgh said. Pennsylvania could employ secured drop boxes where voters can drop off absentee ballots, like states with mail voting already have.

What is missing is the political will to pass these types of reform. But there’s reason to hope. Pointing to the state’s high midterm turnout, Thornburgh said that more people voting means a greater awareness of the limitations of the state’s current system.

“It’s boiling up,” he said. “There are too many voters that have frustrating stories to tell about their experience.”