A federal court on Friday rejected Republican Party efforts to challenge Pennsylvania’s extended deadline for accepting absentee ballots post-Election Day. Additionally, a state court in the Keystone State also ruled against a GOP effort to invalidate nearly 4,500 mail-in ballots cast in Philadelphia. The rulings are one-two punch and setback for President Donald Trump‘s increasingly dim chances of overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“[W]e hold that the District Court did not err in denying [the GOP] motion for injunctive relief out of concern for the settled expectations of voters and election officials,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said in a 55-page opinion. “We will affirm the District Court’s denial of Plaintiffs’ emergency motion for a [temporary restraining order] or preliminary injunction.”
The ruling affirms a lower court loss in which the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled that four GOP voters and one GOP congressional candidate lacked standing on one issue because their claims were not specific enough to support a lawsuit and because the alleged harms were too speculative and not redressable, respectively.
The district court, however, entertained a second claim by the voter plaintiffs that alleged a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. This claim is premised on the idea that allowing the state to count ballots received by 5:00 P.M. on November 6 amounted to an improper, arbitrary and disparate elevation of such voters to a “preferred class of voters” because in-person voters must vote by close of business on Election Day.
The second claim was addressed on the merits but ultimately shot down because the extended deadline did not extend the period for mail-in voters to actually cast their ballots but simply directed officials to count timely cast mail-in ballots.
On a third claim, for which standing was also found, the GOP voter plaintiffs actually won on the merits.
“[The GOP voters] have alleged that through the Presumption of Timeliness, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has created a different, extended Election Day than the one established by Congress,” U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson explained. “The Presumption of Timeliness changes the effective date of the election and extends the date of the election by multiple days for a select group of mail-in voters whose ballots will be presumed to be timely in the absence of a verifiable postmark. Mail-in voters whose ballots fail to receive a legible postmark or any postmark will be presumed to have cast their ballot timely solely by virtue of the judicially created presumption.”
Gibson went on to accuse the Pennsylvania Supreme Court of harming in-person voters and criticized the “unequal treatment of voters,” but ultimately he ruled against them during the final analysis by citing the Purcell principle—which under current Supreme Court jurisprudence stands for the proposition that “lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”
The Third Circuit’s Friday opinion reads effectively like a much-longer rewrite of the district court’s late October ruling.
“We do not decide today whether the Deadline Extension or the Presumption of Timeliness are proper exercises of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s lawmaking authority, delegated by the U.S. Constitution, to regulate federal elections,” conclude George W. Bush-appointed Judge D. Brooks Smith, Barack Obama-appointed Judge Patty Shwartz and Ronald Reagan-appointed Judge Anthony J. Scirica.
“Nor do we evaluate the policy wisdom of those two features of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling,” the ruling continued. “We hold only that when voters cast their ballots under a state’s facially lawful election rule and in accordance with instructions from the state’s election officials, private citizens lack Article III standing to enjoin the counting of those ballots on the grounds that the source of the rule was the wrong state organ or that doing so dilutes their votes or constitutes differential treatment of voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”
The ruling is heavily premised on the Purcell precedent:
Even were we to conclude that [the GOP plaintiffs] have standing, we could not say that the district court abused its discretion in concluding on this record that the Supreme Court’s election- law jurisprudence counseled against injunctive relief. Unique and important equitable considerations, including voters’ reliance on the rules in place when they made their plans to vote and chose how to cast their ballots, support that disposition. [The GOP’s] requested relief would have upended this status quo, which is generally disfavored under the “voter confusion” and election confidence rationales of Purcell v. Gonzalez. One can assume for the sake of argument that aspects of the now-prevailing regime in Pennsylvania are unlawful as alleged and still recognize that, given the timing of [the GOP’s] request for injunctive relief, the electoral calendar was such that following it “one last time” was the better of the choices available.
“Here, less than two weeks before Election Day, [the GOP] asked the district court to enjoin a deadline established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on September 17, a deadline that may have informed voters’ decisions about whether and when to request mail-in ballots as well as when and how they cast or intended to cast them,” the opinion continues. “In such circumstances, the district court was well within its discretion to give heed to Supreme Court decisions instructing that ‘federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.'”
Former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal said the ruling–with its focus on Purcell–was “a huge loss for Trump” and “a very big deal” via Twitter.
“The Purcell holding is absolutely devastating for Trump’s future litigation efforts,” he tweeted. “Coming from this conservative panel, and saying that [federal courts] can’t interfere so close to an election, destroys any hope Trump thought he had. He can try to get SCOTUS to flip it, but very tough.”
Separately, and late Friday, the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas issued a ruling over the Trump campaign’s efforts to invalidate the Philadelphia County Board of Elections’ decision to count five distinct categories of mail-in ballots.
Those efforts went down in flames due to the 45th president’s attorneys “not contending that there has been fraud, that there is evidence of fraud or that the ballots in question were not filled out by the elector in whose name the ballot was issued” and because the campaign “does not allege fraud or irregularity in the canvass and counting of the ballots.”
Judge James Crumlish issued the following order:
WHEREFORE, the Court ORDERS and DECREES that the Petition is DENIED. The Court further ORDERS AND DECREES that the decision of the Philadelphia County Board of Elections in canvassing and counting 4,466 absentee and mail-in ballots containing the elector’s signature and the date on the Declaration envelope but missing the other “fill out” information (hand-printed name and address) is AFFIRMED as in accordance with the provisions of the Election Code and the decisions of the Courts interpreting the Code.
[image via Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images]
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