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A key Democratic group is suing to ease Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail laws

The lawsuit is part of a national fight around voting laws, one that has become increasingly critical as the coronavirus has disrupted elections.

Mail-in ballots for the 2016 General Election are shown at the elections ballot center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Mail-in ballots for the 2016 General Election are shown at the elections ballot center in Salt Lake City, Utah.Read moreRick Bowmer / AP

A major Democratic political group is backing a new lawsuit aiming to make it easier to vote by mail in Pennsylvania because of the coronavirus crisis.

The suit was filed Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans and funded by Priorities USA, the main super PAC supporting likely presidential nominee Joe Biden.

The suit cites obstacles created by the pandemic — including health risks for voters and poll workers — as requiring expanded mail voting. Filed in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, it is seeking:

  1. To require prepaid postage for all absentee and mail-in ballots.

  2. To allow mail-in ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day and received up to seven days later, rather than received by Election Day, as under existing law.

  3. To allow third parties to collect and return absentee or mail-in ballots.

  4. A uniform standard for verifying signatures on mail-in ballots, and to allow voters an opportunity to correct signature questions that might lead to their ballots being rejected.

The plaintiffs want the changes to start with the June 2 primary.

The lawsuit is part of a national fight around voting laws, one that has become increasingly critical as the coronavirus has disrupted elections. Both parties are scrambling to adapt for elections almost certain to rely heavily on mail-in voting.

The Pennsylvania suit prominently cites the April 7 primary election fiasco in Wisconsin, where numerous polling places were closed, state officials were overwhelmed by a flood of mail-in ballot requests, and many ballots did not reach voters in time, leading to long lines at polling sites, despite a stay-at-home order.

“Advance planning and proactive measures to ensure that voters have sufficient access to vote by mail are essential to protect the right to vote and prevent large-scale disenfranchisement," said the lawsuit. It rests on the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of free and fair elections.

Pennsylvania counties have received about 600,000 applications for mail-in ballots for this year’s primary, compared with 84,000 cast in the 2016 primary, the suit says.

It argues that barriers to mail-in voting, such as requiring postage and barring friends or family from returning ballots, disproportionately affect poor, minority, and rural communities that have less access to public transportation, less reliable mail service, and less ability to wait in lines to vote.

“While Pennsylvania has already made notable progress in their effort to protect and expand voting rights protections, this new filing will ensure that we make every effort to protect vulnerable citizens who face unnecessary challenges when voting by mail or absentee ballot,” Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, said.

The suit was brought on behalf of four Pennsylvania plaintiffs and the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans. It was led by Adam Bonin, a prominent Philadelphia election lawyer, and from Washington by Marc Elias, one of the top Democratic election lawyers in the country.

» READ MORE: Voting by mail is a safe option during coronavirus. Here’s what you need to know about absentee ballots in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State declined to comment.

Democrats are pushing for legal changes nationwide, arguing that mail-in voting should be as easy as possible, while Republicans counter that could make states more vulnerable to election fraud.

Earlier this month Democrats filed a suit in Arizona, another swing state, asking courts to rule that mail-in ballots should be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day.

Most of the country has some form of mail-in voting, but the specific laws in each state determine how hard, or easy, it is. With the presidential election potentially coming down to a sliver of votes in a few swing states, the rules could have a profound effect on the outcome. The regulations sought in the Pennsylvania lawsuit are used in other states that more widely use voting by mail.

Election fraud is rare, and most studies show that voting by mail doesn’t advantage either party, but President Donald Trump and national Republicans have attacked mail-in voting as dangerous and beneficial to Democrats.

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The Republican National Committee has set aside $10 million to fight voting-law cases in swing states such as Michigan, Florida, Arizona, and Minnesota.

Republicans have taken aim at calls to allow friends, family members, or activists to turn in ballots on behalf of other voters — which Democrats say is needed for people with poor mail service.

Democrats “want to legalize ballot harvesting nationwide. Sending activists door-to-door to collect ballots not only jeopardizes people’s health, it threatens the security of their ballot,” said RNC spokesperson Michael Joyce.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania is getting a different kind of ‘early voting’ in time for the 2020 election

In 2018, around 96% of Pennsylvania ballots were cast in person, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.

But voting by mail is expected to soar this year. Even before the coronavirus struck, the state had moved, for the first time, to allow anyone to vote by mail with no requirement to provide a reason for doing so. Now, the virus has sharply increased demand for mail-in ballots, and the legal wrangling around them.