Pennsylvania's mail-in voting law gets beaten up on GOP campaign trail

Election integrity and Pennsylvania's mail-in voting law are prominent subjects in the state's Republican primary contest for an open state Supreme Court seat, as Donald Trump continues to baselessly claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

This year, two GOP primary rivals for the state Supreme Court seat in Tuesday's primary election are signaling their disapproval of Pennsylvania’s expansive mail-in voting law.

In one appearance last month, Carolyn Carluccio, a Montgomery County judge, called the mail-in voting law "bad" for the state and for faith in elections. She suggested elections are too "secretive" and promised that if the law comes before the high court "I’m going to be happy to take a look at it."

Meanwhile, Patricia McCullough, a judge on the statewide Commonwealth Court, repeatedly highlights her rulings in election-related cases, including voting to throw out the mail-in voting law.

"Election integrity, that seems to be like the most important issue to the people right now," McCullough told an interviewer on public access television in Erie last month.

Both parties will pick a high court nominee to run in November's general election. The state's highest court currently has four justices elected as Democrats and two as Republicans. The seat is open following the death of Chief Justice Max Baer last fall.

Allegations about election fraud and opposition to Pennsylvania's mail-in voting law have persisted in Republican primaries in 2021 and 2022, demonstrating just how influential Trump’s extreme and baseless election claims are to the GOP campaign trail.

In last year's governor’s race, for instance, every candidate in the GOP’s nine-person field vowed to repeal the 2019 law that established no-excuse mail-in voting in Pennsylvania.

A third Republican-backed challenge to the mail-in voting law is pending in state courts, while Republicans have repeatedly gone to court to try to ensure that ballots cast by legal, eligible voters are thrown out for technical errors, like a missing envelope, signature or date.

Trump's baseless claims about election fraud have tended to target mail-in ballots and big cities including Philadelphia.

On the campaign trail, McCullough has repeatedly told of presiding over a 2020 post-election legal challenge that sought to invalidate the mail-in voting law and tilt victory to Trump in the presidential battleground state.

"I was the only judge in 2020 in the presidential election in the entire country to order the governor to stop certifying the election because of the constitutional challenges to the mail-in ballot law," she told the crowd at a rally in Greencastle in March.

That drew cheers and applause.

The lawsuit had asked the court to throw out 2.5 million mail-in votes — roughly 70% of which were cast by Democrats. The state's high court quickly overturned McCullough's order.

McCullough participated last year in a 3-2 Commonwealth Court decision granting a separate challenge by Republican lawmakers to invalidate the law. The judges' vote was party line — Republicans declaring it unconstitutional, Democrats declaring it constitutional — as was a reversal by the state’s Democratic-majority high court.

At the time, then-Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, accused Republicans of trying to kill the law "in the service of the ‘big lie’" of Trump’s baseless election fraud claims.

In an Erie County GOP forum last month, Carluccio seemed to suggest that she would be hostile to the mail-in voting law — called Act 77 — should another challenge come to the high court.

"I would welcome that to come up before me again, let’s put it that way. Not much I can say, but I can tell you that Act 77 has been very bad for our Commonwealth. It has been very bad for just faith in our system," Carluccio told the crowd in response to a question about the law.

She criticized how the state Supreme Court has ruled in cases involving mail-in ballots and suggested that elections are too secretive to be trusted.

"We should be able to go to the polls and understand that our vote counts and understand that there’s not going to be some hanky-panky going on in the back," she told the crowd.

Asked to clarify her Carluccio's comments, her campaign responded that she was referring to "conflicting, and sometimes unclear" court decisions on mail-in ballots with handwritten dates and "numerous anecdotal comments she’s heard from election volunteers being shut out of polling places" in Philadelphia.