A federal appeals court this week blocked certification of the election results for the contest between Republican David Ritter and Democrat Zachary Cohen for Lehigh County, Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge.

Currently, Ritter is 74 votes ahead of Cohen, but the win would flip to the Democrat should the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decide to count 257 absentee ballots that lack handwritten dates on their return envelopes. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania is litigating on behalf of five of the voters who cast those ballots.

In January, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled that the flawed ballots could not be counted. Later that month, the state Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. 

Last week, U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson issued an opinion affirming the Pennsylvania courts’ decision on the matter. Advocates for those who submitted the undated ballots contend that declining to count their votes violates the federal Civil Rights Act as well as the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Leeson however reasoned that the requirement that voters write the date next to their signature on their ballot envelope serves the interest of fraud prevention and does not unduly burden voters.

“…This Court concludes that the burden imposed by the handwritten date requirement is slight,” Leeson wrote. “That voters must provide a handwritten date next to the voter’s signature is a minor limitation on the fundamental right to vote. The parties to this matter agree on this point. … This Court concludes that there are important interests sufficient to sustain the regulation in light of the minor requirement imposed.”

The ACLU and the five plaintiffs decided to appeal.

“Anyone who is eligible to vote and who submitted their ballot on time should have their vote counted, and everyone involved in this case acknowledges that these ballots are those of qualified voters who returned their ballots by the deadline,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “Dating the return envelope is an irrelevant technicality and is a foolish reason to disenfranchise someone.”

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Pennsylvania Judicial Center” by Niagara CC BY-SA 3.0.