Pennsylvania election officials seek to extend deadline for receiving mail-in ballots, citing slowdown in mail

Pennsylvania officials said Thursday that they are willing to count mail-in ballots up to three days after the November general election, provided they are mailed by November 3, a significant change in a key swing state.

“Ballots mailed by voters on or before 8:00 p.m. on Election Day will be counted if they are otherwise valid and received by the county boards of election on or before the third day following the election,” the Department of State said in a court filing Thursday.

The change comes after the US Postal Service told the state in a letter that it could not guarantee the timely delivery of ballots in the general election under the current state deadlines for requesting and returning ballots.

The Postal Service indicated it would take two-to-five days to mail back ballots but, according to Pennsylvania’s filing, that is a longer time frame for first class mail than the service had indicated ahead of the Pennsylvania primary just last month. In the filing, Pennsylvania said the longer time frame suggested that controversial changes recently instituted by the Postmaster General will impact election mail.

“Department of State officials were in close contact with representatives of the Postal Service in the months leading up to the June 2020 primary election, and were not given any reasons to expect that delivery of first-class mail take longer than the typical one to three business days,” the filing said.

It was a major concession in a handful of ongoing court cases where Democrats have sought to ensure more widespread voting availability in the battleground state.

“To state it simply: voters who apply for mail-in ballots in the last week of the application period and return their completed ballot by mail will, through no fault of their own, likely be disenfranchised,” Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar told the court. The change is meant to address “the threat that mail-delivery delays during an ongoing pandemic will disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters,” the court filing said.

Put another way, Pennsylvania’s deadlines for mail-in voting around Election Day may be too late for a slow-moving postal service.

The US Postal Service’s general counsel Thomas Marshall wrote to Boockvar in late July that deadlines for voters to request and cast ballots by mail could bump up against a deadline for elections officials to receive ballots by Election Day.

“If a voter submits a request at or near that deadline (on October 27) and the ballot is transmitted to the voter by mail, there is a significant risk that the voter will not have sufficient time to complete and mail the completed ballot back to election officials in time for it to arrive by the state’s return deadline,” Marshall wrote.

Kevin Greenberg, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Democrats, said Thursday that the state party would continue to fight for an extension of seven days to receive ballots after the election. Republicans could seek to block the extension, as they have in Nevada.

Another Democratic lawyer involved in the suit declared it a significant victory for voter access.

“Let’s be clear. This is one of our biggest priorities for the November election,” said Marc Elias. “Millions of Pennsylvania voters — many of whom will cast their ballot by mail for the first time — now won’t have to worry about their ballot not counting due to mail delays.”