How Pennsylvanians Are Combatting Voter Suppression
Joe Biden and President Trump have campaigned in Pennsylvania weekly since the conventions ended and both have held town halls in Philadelphia. That’s how critical the swing state Hillary Clinton lost on November 8, 2016 (by less than a percent) is to both parties. But the coronavirus pandemic has challenged both candidates and voters in Pennsylvania, most notably in that it has resulted in serious concerns about voter suppression.
The April Pennsylvania primary, which was pushed back to June, was the first election in the state in which it was legal for any registered voter to get an unexcused absentee ballot. But all those mail-in ballots — almost 17 times the number requested in the 2016 election — overwhelmed the system. It took over two weeks for races in all 67 counties to be certified. And Pennsylvania law stipulates that mail-in ballots not be opened until Election Day.
But that wasn’t the only issue: 37,119 ballots were rejected in Pennsylvania (more than any state other than California and New York), disenfranchising those voters. Most absentee or mail-in ballots are rejected because required signatures are missing or don’t match the one on record, or because voters missed the deadline to submit those ballots. Pennsylvania also has a “naked ballot” law where ballots must be sealed in a “secrecy envelope” and then placed in the official mailing envelope; failure to do so also results in the ballot’s rejection.
To put these rejected ballots into perspective, consider that Trump only won Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election by 44,292 votes, or by 0.7%. Should absentee ballots be rejected in significant numbers this November, Lisa Deeley, Chairwoman of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, suggests the state would tip to Trump once again, since Democrats are three to four times as likely to vote by mail as Republicans.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Trump has been fighting to limit voters’ access to mail-in voting in Pennsylvania since the primary, specifically by filing lawsuits to limit how and when ballots can be received and counted.
“The only reason the Trump campaign is trying to limit the use of mail-in voting is to make it more difficult for Pennsylvanians to vote,” Sarah Brannon, managing attorney of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told Supermajority News. She added that voters can combat these efforts by using drop boxes, which are a “safe and efficient option for people who want to participate in our democracy, particularly in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly pandemic.”
Many Pennsylvanians are paying close attention to this disenfranchisement, especially given their memories of similar experiences in 2016. Marla Johnson, a resident of the predominantly Black neighborhood of East Oak Lane in Northwest Philadelphia and poll worker of nearly 30 years, never believed Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 — she wanted the state to do a recount.
“I feel I was disenfranchised in 2016,” Johnson told Supermajority News. “I feel my whole family was disenfranchised and this city was, too. Black women voted for Hillary. We came out for her.”
Thankfully, a number of concerned parties are doing all they can to prevent voter suppression this year, including Lisa Deeley who, on September 21, petitioned the state legislature, expressing her concerns that similar problems could result in thousands of rejected general election ballots. “I don’t want 100,000 legit Pennsylvania ballots thrown out for a technicality,” she told Supermajority News.
Three Pennsylvania voters from the Pittsburgh area — Patricia DeMarco, Danielle Graham-Robinson, and Kathleen Wise — signed onto a lawsuit filed by the Black Political Empowerment Project, Common Cause Pennsylvania, and the League of Women Voters to expand drop-boxes for mail-in ballots. The three women asserted that the primary had disenfranchised them as regular voters whose health issues made them vulnerable to the pandemic. Robinson and Wise got their ballots too late to make the deadline and DeMarco never received confirmation that her ballot had been received by the county elections office.
The League of Women Voters also filed another lawsuit demanding that anyone whose ballot is rejected due to handwriting be notified and allowed to “prove” it is their signature. The League noted that disabled, elderly, and less educated voters are most likely to have their handwriting questioned. In every one of those demographics, women outnumber men.
But the Republican-led state legislature is also working to limit accommodations for voters in any way it can. On September 28, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day. The legislators claimed this ostensibly extends the election.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that claim in a late-night vote on October 20. The high court ruled that Pennsylvania could legally extend the deadline for receipt of mail-in ballots to November 6 — three days after Election Day.
This wasn’t the Republicans’ first failed attempt to curtail Pennsylvania voters. After Trump himself asserted at the presidential debate on September 30 that “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” claiming the city and state are rigging the votes against him, federal court Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan threw out a lawsuit filed by Trump’s campaign on October 10, dismissing its challenges to the battleground state’s poll-watching law and its efforts to limit how mail-in ballots can be collected and which of them can be counted. Still, the Trump campaign is appealing Ranjan’s ruling and Trump has repeatedly said he’ll only lose Pennsylvania if Democrats cheat.
The Trump lawsuit was opposed by the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf (D), the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP’s Pennsylvania office, and others.
“The ruling is a complete rejection of the continued misinformation about voter fraud and corruption, and those who seek to sow chaos and discord ahead of the upcoming election,” Wolf’s office said in a statement.
These attempts are perhaps unsurprising given the recent revelation that, in 2016, the Trump campaign targeted 3.5 million Black voters in a widespread, data-based form of voter suppression.
In addition to these concerted attempts to suppress votes, the pandemic has also forced the closure of many polling places throughout the state, which in turn can lead to voter suppression. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state’s two largest cities, had 2,100 polling places in 2018. In 2020 there are 500. The people most impacted by this are Black voters, given that Philadelphia is 45% Black and Pittsburgh is 23% Black.
Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters, succinctly explained to Supermajority News that cutting the number of polling places disproportionately impacts voters of color. “It’s a voter suppression tactic,” Stewart said.
Another concern is that 2020 will be the first presidential election since 1980 where the Republican Party is not bound by a consent decree, which has limited the Republican National Committee’s ability to challenge voters’ qualifications and target voter fraud — which Trump has falsely, but consistently, claimed is rampant.
The evisceration of the consent decree also means that Republicans can encourage Trump supporters to use “security tactics” that Trump has called for, such as poll watching, and thus intimidate Democratic voters or keep them from the polls. The Republican National Committee asserts their poll-watching will extend only to legal tactics, but Marc Elias, the Democratic Party’s attorney for voting rights litigation, told 60 Minutes he was very worried about the likelihood of such voter intimidation, noting it was something “everyone who cares about voting rights should be worried about.”
As Senator Kamala Harris said after the vice presidential debate and again while campaigning in Orlando on October 19, “Why do you think they don’t want us to vote? We all know the answer: It’s because they know when we vote, things change. When we vote, we will be seen, we will be heard, and elected officials will be held accountable.”
For Marla Johnson, there was some satisfaction, therefore, in turning her mail-in ballot early, but she said the wait until Election Day, and whenever the election is decided, will be hard. “We did our part. Now we just have to wait and see what happens.”