LEILA FADEL, HOST:
There's been a yearslong dispute over mail-in ballots in the key swing state of Pennsylvania. This particular fight is over ballots that arrive on time but are missing something on the envelopes they're in - a date handwritten by the voter. That detail has sparked multiple legal challenges that may have big implications, including in a razor-thin Republican primary race that could determine which party will control the next Senate. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers voting, and he joins us now. Hi, Hansi.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.
FADEL: OK, so how many mail-in ballot envelopes are missing that handwritten date that we're talking about?
WANG: In this Pennsylvania Republican primary for an open Senate seat, we're talking about some 860 mail-in ballots that were, again, received on time by local election officials but did not meet this requirement under Pennsylvania law that says voters have to fill out, date and sign the back of this envelope. Now, that number may not sound like much.
WANG: But keep in mind, as of Monday, there's a margin of fewer than 1,000 votes between the two Republican frontrunners - Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor backed by former President Donald Trump, and David McCormick, a former CEO of a hedge fund. And there's a hearing before a state court today because McCormick has put in an emergency request for a court order that would require these ballots without handwritten dates to be counted. And by the way, McCormick has been doing better with mail-in ballots so far.
FADEL: OK. But if, under Pennsylvania law, voters are required to handwrite a date on those ballot envelopes and these envelopes don't have those dates, what's David McCormick's argument for counting them?
WANG: Well, McCormick's attorneys are citing, in part, a recent ruling by a federal court in another lawsuit - that case is over 257 ballots without handwritten dates in a county-level election last year. And this month, a panel of federal judges on an appeals court ruled that not counting those ballots without written dates violates the Civil Rights Act, which bans denying a person's right to vote for a reason that is, quote, "not material" in determining whether that person qualifies under state law to vote. And state election officials have specified that those handwritten dates are not used to determine a voter's eligibility. And, in fact, ballot envelopes with the incorrect dates were counted in that county election.
But, you know, this is all really a tangle of court rulings right now between federal courts and state courts, which, back in 2020, ultimately ruled to count ballots without handwritten dates. But for a case about a 2021 election, the state courts ruled the opposite way. So you can see how there's been a lot of back and forth these past couple of years.
FADEL: So any sense of how all of this is going to get resolved?
WANG: Well, this federal appeals court ruling - ordering these ballots without handwritten dates to be counted - that ruling is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court soon. So I'm watching to see how that plays out. In the meantime, there's this recount happening, and results are due next week for this Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania. And I'm watching to see what state courts may order this week and how that could affect the recount results.
And, you know, this is all part of this intense scrutiny over mail-in voting that has really started since the surge of voting by mail began with the pandemic. And, you know, what's at stake here is, you know, which Republican will run in November for this open Senate seat that could determine which party controls the next Senate. And another big question is the voting rights of registered voters in Pennsylvania and whose votes get counted. And let's not forget, Pennsylvania could be one of the states in 2024 that decides who is the next president.
FADEL: NPR correspondent Hansi Lo Wang reports on voting. Hansi, thank you so much.
WANG: You're welcome, Leila.
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