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Supreme Court Rules Against GOP, Will Allow Extended Mail-in Vote Period in Pennsylvania

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Supreme Court Rules Against GOP, Will Allow Extended Mail-in Vote Period in Pennsylvania

2020-10-20 15:23:54

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Josh Shapiro (Image source: Gov. Tom Wolf via Wikimedia Commons)

The Supreme Court just settled a case on Monday, which shows how pivotal the ninth justice is/will be. With Democratic senators last week clamoring for Amy Coney Barrett to recuse herself in election matters should she be confirmed, yesterday's case regarding Pennsylvania election results ended up in a tie and fell to the lower court's ruling.

On Monday night the U.S. Supreme Court allowed mail-in ballots that are received up to three days after Election Day to be counted. The matter reached the high court after Pennsylvania Republicans filed a request to stop the votes from being counted after the matter was approved by the state's Supreme Court.

Normally, this practice wouldn't carry that much importance, but in this election year, with more mail-in votes than usual and Donald Trump sowing mistrust in the practice, it carries extreme importance and forced a battle between Democrats and Republicans in the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court was tied on the matter, meaning the decision resorts to the lower court's ruling to allow the votes. Four conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh — ruled to grant the stay, while Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

This shows the importance of the ninth judge. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away last month. She would have surely ruled with the liberal justices, which would have tipped the decision in favor of allowing the votes to be counted.

Donald Trump's nominee to fill Ginsburg's seat — Amy Coney Barrett — told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that she could not say how she would rule in an election case until she heard all the facts, but she also said she had not made any promises to the president that she would take his side. With Trump being very open about plans to protest the results should he lose, it's placing extreme importance on the role Barrett could take should she be confirmed.

Neither the conservative nor liberal side of the Pennsylvania ruling explained its decision, but this often happens with emergency requests.

The case was before the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly two weeks. This indicates the justices may have been attempting a compromise on the ruling.

There have been many election procedure battles between Democrats and Republicans at the state level this election year. The Supreme Court had already sided with Republicans in South Carolina, stating that most mail-in ballots must contain a witness's signature, despite federal courts waiving that requirement because of the health crisis.

Pennsylvania's election results carry a lot of weight, as it's seen as a possible make-or-break situation for Trump. In 2016 he beat former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, but by a slim margin of 44,000 votes. Compounding the situation, it's one of Democratic challenger Joe Biden's home states. He was born in Scranton but moved to Delaware when he was 10.

The state's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Democrats last month regarding the rules for mail-in votes. It decided votes would be allowed to be turned in via dropbox in addition to arriving via the USPS.  This gives ballots an extra three days to arrive. The court also blocked a Republican effort to allow partisan poll watchers to be stationed in counties where they don't reside.

Pennsylvania's Republican legislators and the state Republicans asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on only the mail-in ballot deadline. The state Supreme Court said ballots must be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day, November 3. They must be counted even if there is no discernible postmark, "unless a preponderance of the evidence shows the ballots were mailed after Election Day.

"In a year where there is a very real possibility that the final presidential election result hinges on Pennsylvania, the new rules imposed by the decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (a body elected in partisan elections) could destroy the American public's confidence in the electoral system as a whole," said the stay request filed by the GOP.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court based its decision on a clause in the state's constitution that mandates "all aspects of the electoral process in Pennsylvania be open and unrestricted so as not to disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters," said Josh Shapiro, the state's Democratic attorney general.

"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision protected that right and brought much-needed clarity to the exigent circumstances surrounding a global pandemic," continued Shapiro. "In doing so, that court ensured that Pennsylvanians would not be forced to choose between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health."

He disagreed with the Republicans' claim that the decision was basically voting beyond Election Day. He said it was a key part of federalism that states be allowed to decide how to run their elections.

The state's lawmakers, however, believe the decision takes away the power of legislatures to set rules for elections. While the changes are tied to the special challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic, "the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's own special master found that COVID-19 is not likely to disrupt the November General Election ballot receipt deadline."

The U.S. Supreme Court can be skeptical of rule changes in the midst of an election, but it would have been a rare occasion for the justices to intervene when the state court was interpreting the state's constitution and the laws. But the tie vote basically means they are intervening.

A group of Republican attorneys and officials from previous administrations, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R), had issued a warning in an amicus brief that allowing the votes would be a mistake. 

They warned that denying the stay request "by the broadest majority possible will benefit this court, our country, and its precious tradition of the peaceful retention of transfer of power." 

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