A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled on Monday that mail-in ballots that are received on time but are undated should be counted, arguing that a state law rejecting such votes violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The ruling was an opening victory for voting rights groups in a case with national implications heading into the 2024 election, as Republicans and conservative advocacy groups continue to push for stricter voting laws.
“We applaud today’s court decision,” said Susan Gobreski, a vice president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, which is a plaintiff in the case. She added: “Pennsylvania citizens must have complete and unfettered access to the ballot box, free from unnecessary obstacles or interference.”
The ruling is likely to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the court’s most conservative members have previously supported the state law that requires voters to write the date on the return envelope when sending in their ballots.
The Republican National Committee, a defendant in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a 77-page opinion, Judge Susan Paradise Baxter of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania said that the law violated the voting protections of the Civil Rights Act because the requirement that voters date their ballots was not “material to the act of voting.”
“The provision protects a citizen’s right to vote by forbidding a state actor from disqualifying a voter because of their failure to provide or error in providing some unnecessary information on a voting application or ballot,” Judge Baxter wrote in her opinion, adding that “the ballots of the individual plaintiffs should be counted because their statutory rights have been violated.”
A protracted legal battle has raged over the validity of undated mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered state officials a week before the 2022 election to refrain from counting ballots that were undated, after the Republican National Committee and other party-aligned groups sued to block those votes from being counted.
The N.A.A.C.P. and several other voting rights groups then sued to reverse the order, arguing that failing to count votes because of a missing or incorrect date would potentially disenfranchise thousands of voters.