US ELECTION 2020

US Election 2020: Pennsylvania court rules on segregated ballots

In total, the counties of Pennsylvania have seen over 6.77 million ballots, which equates to a voter turnout of around 74%. But Donald Trump is contesting the outcome.

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US Election 2020: Pennsylvania court rules on segregated ballots
MARK MAKELA REUTERS

President-elect Joe Biden was declared victorious in the days following the US election 2020 but since then - and, actually, for some time leading up to the vote - current Oval Office dweller Donald Trump has been calling it a fraud.

The legitimacy of the voter fraud claim

The president's litigation campaign to discredit the Democratic triumph, however, is very unlikely to change the outcome of the election and is mostly about politics and fundraising. That's the view, at least, of a number of election law experts.

Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, much of it in the last week via his favourite communication tool, Twitter. He claims he won the 3 November election and accused Democrats of trying to "steal" it from him. The Trump campaign has said it is fighting for a "free, fair, and fully transparent election in which every legal ballot is counted and every illegal ballot is not counted." But the lawsuits do not reflect this rhetoric, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

"In the political realm, we see accusations of massive voter fraud. But in court, if you look at the cases, it's totally different," Levinson said.

Trump election fraud: a look into the legal cases

Since Election Day, the Trump campaign has brought suits in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia. A common allegation in many of them is that Republican poll watchers were denied proper access to vote counting sites in Democratic-leaning areas. The most sweeping cases, filed this week in Michigan and Pennsylvania, seek to halt officials in those states from certifying Biden as the winner.

In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign alleged that a lack of observer access, combined with inadequate verification of voter identities and other factors, made mail-in voting untrustworthy.

In Michigan, the Trump campaign alleged that Republican poll observers were obstructed from viewing the counting of mail-in ballots in a Detroit convention center.

Trump's fraud claim not as clear as it seems

Despite Trump's rhetoric on Twitter, his campaign's initial lawsuits did not allege voter fraud. In the 11 November Michigan case, the campaign did include sworn statements from Republican poll watchers who suggested fraud may have occurred but provided scant evidence.

One Republican challenger said poll workers "were duplicating ballots to incorrect precincts in order to run two ballots through for the same person." He said he saw it happen 20 to 30 times, but did not say if he tried to challenge these alleged actions.

Karl Rove, a prominent Republican strategist, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 11 November that Trump's lawsuits have presented no evidence of the sort of systemic fraud that would be needed to overturn Biden's victory.

Rare sighting | President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump arrive for a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery.

“The president’s efforts are unlikely to move a single state from Mr. Biden’s column, and certainly they’re not enough to change the final outcome," Rove wrote.

Pennsylvania count How are Trump's court cases going?

Trump has scored a few narrow victories in Pennsylvania.

A judge on 5 November granted his campaign's request to observe Philadelphia poll workers up close as they counted mail-in ballots. On Thursday 12 November, the state's Commonwealth Court barred county election officials from counting mail-in and absentee ballots in which voters provided missing information after 9 November. As the state ruling extending this for a further three days had only been made two days prior to the election, it was deemed to lack the required authority.

“[T]he Court concludes that Respondent Kathy Boockvar, in her official capacity as Secretary of the Commonwealth, lacked statutory authority to issue the November 1, 2020, guidance to Respondents County Boards of Elections insofar as that guidance purported to change the deadline … for certain electors to verify proof of identification,” Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said in a court order.

Although Trump supporters have jumped on this as a major win, the small number of ballots that it covers is almost negligible to the reasult.

Judges quickly dismissed other Trump lawsuits, including one in Michigan relating to poll observer access and one in Georgia that sought a court order to not count late-arriving ballots.

What is Trump's objective with these cases?

Legal experts said the lawsuits appear to be aimed at casting doubt over Biden's victory in closely contested states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

If courts halted officials from certifying results in those states, it opens the door for Republican state legislatures to argue that he was the true winner and that the state's electoral votes should be awarded to him. The US Congress would then have to decide which electoral votes to recognize.

Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have already shot down this theory, saying the legislature has no role in awarding electoral votes.

Best outcome Trump can hope for

Legal experts said the most promising case for Trump is one pending before the US Supreme Court in which Republicans are trying to undo a decision allowing Pennsylvania election officials to count mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day so long as they were received up to three days later.

Democracy in action | Voters fill out their ballots on Election Day in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

Conservative justices declined to expedite the case before Election Day, but suggested they might revisit it. The case has important implications for states because it could clarify the role of legislatures and courts in setting election rules.

It will not affect the Biden's win in Pennsylvania because state officials said only 10,000 ballots were received during the timeframe at issue. Biden's lead in Pennsylvania is more than 53,000 votes, according to Edison Research.

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Below is a list of all the cases that are likely to play out in the coming days and weeks, summarised by Reuters:

PENNSYLVANIA, MICHIGAN LAWSUITS TO BLOCK BIDEN VICTORIES

In federal courts in Pennsylvania and Michigan, the Trump campaign has sued to prevent Biden from being certified by election officials as the winner of the election in those states.

On Nov. 8, Trump's campaign filed a lawsuit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania alleging Pennsylvania's mail-in voting system "lacked all of the hallmarks of transparency and verifiability that were present for in-person voters."

On Nov. 11, the campaign filed a similar federal lawsuit in the Western District of Michigan alleging misconduct such as harassment of Republican poll challengers and a requirement that they adhere to six-foot distancing rules unlike Democratic poll challengers.

The complaint said Michigan election results should not be certified without confirming that all ballots were counted properly, and a special election might be needed in problematic precincts.

OTHER PENNSYLVANIA LITIGATION

Trump's campaign on Nov. 4 sought to intervene in a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging a ruling from Pennsylvania's highest court that allowed state election officials to count mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day even if they were delivered as late as three days later.

Pennsylvania election officials have said there were about 10,000 late-arriving ballots, which were separated.

The justices had previously ruled there was not enough time to decide the case's merits before Election Day but indicated they might revisit it afterwards.

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, said at the time there was a "strong likelihood" the Pennsylvania court ruling violated the U.S. Constitution.

The Trump campaign is also fighting a number of more narrow cases in the state. On Nov. 12, the campaign scored a narrow victory after the state's Commonwealth Court barred county election officials from counting mail-in and absentee ballots in which voters provided missing information after Nov. 9.

ARIZONA CHALLENGE

Trump's campaign said on Nov. 7 it filed a lawsuit in Arizona alleging that Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is the state's most populous county, incorrectly rejected votes cast on Election Day by some voters.

The lawsuit filed in state Superior Court in the county said poll workers told some voters to press a button after a machine had detected an "overvote."

Trump's campaign said this disregarded voters' choices in those races, and that the affected votes could prove "determinative" for the presidential race.

NEVADA LOSS

A voter, a member of the media and two candidates' campaigns sued Nevada's secretary of state to prevent the use of a signature-verification system in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and to provide public access to vote counting.

A federal judge rejected the request on Nov. 6, saying there was no evidence the county was doing anything unlawful.

GEORGIA BALLOT FIGHT

The Trump campaign on Nov. 4 filed a lawsuit in a state court in Chatham County that alleged late-arriving ballots were improperly commingled with valid ballots, and asked a judge to order that late-arriving ballots be separated and not counted.

The case was dismissed on Nov. 5.

MICHIGAN BALLOT-COUNTING SUIT

Trump's campaign filed a lawsuit in Michigan on Nov. 4 to halt vote counting, saying campaign poll watchers were denied "meaningful access" to witness the counting of ballots.

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens dismissed the case a day after it was filed.