A court in the US state of Pennsylvania sided with Republican legislators on Friday in striking down a state law that had eliminated barriers to voting by mail, raising a question mark about ballot access in the political battleground state ahead of crucial election contests later this year.
A five-judge panel agreed with Republicans who had challenged the law, Act 77, saying the state’s constitution required people to vote in person unless they had a specific excuse, such as having a disability or being away from home on Election Day.
Three Republican judges ruled Act 77 was unconstitutional and two Democratic judges dissented.
Democrats actively used mail-in voting in 2020, helping President Joe Biden win the state over Donald Trump by some 80,000 votes. The case is part of a broader national fight between Republicans and Democrats over voting rules following the 2020 election.
Friday’s ruling comes ahead of important races in Pennsylvania, including the one for retiring Republican US Senator Pat Toomey, a contest that could help determine control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.
The administration of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf indicated it would immediately appeal the ruling. That could put the decision temporarily on hold while it is under consideration at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said that while she believed Pennsylvanians would support eliminating the in-person voting requirement, a constitutional amendment, rather than legislation, was the appropriate first step.
“An amendment to our Constitution that ends the requirement of in-person voting is the necessary prerequisite to the legislature’s establishment of a no-excuse mail-in voting system,” Leavitt wrote in the ruling.
Act 77 of the Pennsylvania election code was passed in 2019 as the result of a compromise between Republican and Democratic state legislators. Republicans were seeking to end straight-ticket voting, which had allowed voters to select one political party’s slate of candidates, and Democrats wanted to open voting-by-mail to everyone.
Act 77 was implemented in 2019 with Republican support. But Republicans changed their views on the law after Trump lost the state, with many of them embracing the former president’s false claims that widespread fraud tied to mail-in ballots was behind his defeat.
“We need leaders to support removing more barriers to voting, not trying to silence the people,” Wolf’s office said.
Trump and Republicans quickly lauded the decision.
“Big news out of Pennsylvania, great patriotic spirit is developing at a level that nobody thought possible. Make America Great Again!” Trump said in a statement through his political action committee.
The mail-in voting law has become a hot topic on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, with nearly every Republican candidate for governor – including two of three state senators who had voted for the law – vowing to repeal it.
Even Republicans who avoid repeating Trump’s baseless election fraud claims have disparaged the actions of state judges and officials as “unconstitutional” or “illegal” in the handling of disputes and questions over the mail-in voting law in 2020.
The state Supreme Court, which will hear the appeal, has a 5-2 Democratic majority and Pennsylvania’s attorney general Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who is running for governor, said he is confident the mail-in law will be upheld as constitutional.
Shapiro criticised the lower court’s opinion as “based on twisted logic and faulty reasoning” and “wrong on the law”.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made mail-in voting more attractive to voters worried about health risks.
More than 2.6 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail in the election. After a campaign that saw Trump repeatedly disparage voting by mail, roughly three-quarters of ballots cast by mail selected Biden.
Earlier in January, an effort by Democrats in the US Congress to pass sweeping election reforms to make voting easier failed in the Senate due to Republican opposition.