In the spring of 2008, large numbers of citizens lost their right to vote in Pennsylvania primary elections when a number of electronic voting machines failed.
Election administrators did not allow the safeguard of emergency paper ballots, and many voters, unable to wait in hours-long lines, left their polling places without casting a ballot. In response, Pennsylvania’s voting commissioner issued an order stating that emergency ballots could only be distributed when every single machine in a precinct failed.
For something as fundamental as our right to vote, such easily avoidable obstacles are inexcusable.
In October 2008, the Law Center, joining a coalition of Pennsylvania voters and civil rights groups led by the NAACP State Conference of Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to ensure that voters receive emergency paper ballots on Election Day when 50% or more voting machines become inoperable at any polling site in the state. With record numbers of voters expected, Pennsylvania risked widespread disenfranchisement if action was not taken, and the case was followed closely by media and voting rights advocates nationally.
As the complaint states, NAACP v. Cortes was filed “to enforce the most fundamental right secured by the United States Constitution: the right to vote.” Along with the complaint, we filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Expedited Hearing to ensure prompt action before the November elections.
The case moved quickly. After we filed on October 23rd, a hearing was held on October 28th, and the District Court judge ruled in our favor on October 29th.
District Court Chief Judge Harvey Bartle III granted preliminary injunction in Cortes on October 29th, ordering Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro Cortes to direct poll workers to issue emergency ballots immediately whenever 50% of voting machines in a precinct are inoperable.
He wrote: “The right to vote is at the foundation of our constitutional form of government. Ultimately all our freedoms depend on it. Protection of this right under the circumstances presented here is without question in the public interest.” Secretary Cortes issued a release the same day stating that his office would not appeal the decision and would comply with the Judge’s order.
The lawsuit gained national attention, providing an important ruling that the right to vote includes freedom from unnecessary obstacles and fear that one’s vote will not be counted.