Last-Minute Rules Change in PA Primary Added to Chaos

The confusion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and unrest were only exacerbated in Pennsylvania this week when Democratic Governor Tom Wolf amended the state’s election laws the night before Election Day. Governor Wolf is giving voters in six counties an extra week to turn in their mail ballots. Voters in Pennsylvania’s other 61 counties were still required to comply with the original deadline.

Local election officials were blindsided by the announcement, and Republican leaders were not consulted on the decision:

Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Tabas contended in a statement that “the Governor’s move to change the terms of the election for just six counties violates the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution, which requires that all laws governing an election must be uniform throughout the state.”

Tuesday's election marked the first time that Pennsylvania voters were able to cast their ballots by mail. Prior to this week's election, only about 5% of votes were cast by excused absentee ballots. In the past, election results were typically available shortly after the polls closed. However, some officials now expect that results could take weeks to process.

Tom Spencer, Vice President of the Lawyers Democracy Fund, expressed his concern over the far reaching impacts that Governor Wolf's decision may have on this week's election and elections to come:

Not only are last-minute changes to election procedures unfair to voters, a lack of uniformity in election laws across the state has the potential to fuel voter confusion and discourage voter participation. . . Last-minute changes to election rules, whether from executive orders like Wolf’s or from court decisions, have the grave potential to undermine the fairness and honesty of elections and the public’s confidence in their fairness.

Federal court decisions continue to support the notion that fairness and honesty are crucial for instilling confidence in the election system. Earlier this week, Judge James Ho wrote in a concurrence to the Fifth Circuit decision in Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott:

The right to vote is fundamental to our constitutional democracy. But it means nothing if your vote doesn't count. And it won't count if it's cancelled by a fraudulent vote—as the Supreme Court has made clear in case after case.

While President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden easily won their primaries for the Republican and Democratic nominations for President respectively, several competitive primary races for local and state offices have yet to be decided.