Judge expedites mail-in voting lawsuit

A lawsuit seeking to change the way the state handles mail-in ballots filed by the campaign seeking to reelect President Donald J. Trump has been thrown into high gear by the federal judge overseeing it.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan notified parties in the case of a sped up schedule set for them to begin to exchange information and clarify the issues in the lawsuit so he may make a decision in advance of the November 3 general election.  The lawsuit was filed last month against Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and election officials throughout the state,

In 2019 the state legislature expanded the right to vote by mail to all Pennsylvanians registered to vote.  Mail-in balloting first ran under the new law, known as Act 77, during the June primary.

The Trump campaign wants to firm up the state’s methods for handling mail-in and absentee ballots, which it claims in its lawsuit fails “to enact even basic transparency measures or safeguards against fraud, creates an obvious opportunity for ineligible voters to cast ballots, invites fraud, and undermines the public’s confidence in the integrity of elections.”

The Trump campaign wants election officials to only receive mail-in ballots posted in security envelopes and only wants those ballots delivered to official polling places.  The lawsuit also demands that poll workers be allowed to serve outside of their county of residence.  Act 77 has looser restrictions on where ballots may be received and under it poll workers must work in their county of residence.

Ranjan will begin hearing preliminary arguments on the case this week in Pittsburgh.  The Susquehanna County office of Voter Registration is named as a defendant, along with offices throughout the state’s 67 counties.

“Specifically, an expedited timeline is necessary in this case to allow for the resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims in advance of the November general election,” Ranjan wrote in a July 17 scheduling order.

In its lawsuit, the Trump campaign cites three historical instances of misuse of mail-in ballots: one a 1999 guilty plea to absentee ballot tampering by a Fayette County representative; a 2014 case where a former police chief in Allegheny County pled guilty to illegally soliciting absentee ballots; and a 2015 case from Lackawanna County where a guilty plea was entered for an individual who admitted he had illegally encouraged non-residents to register to vote using absentee ballots.

In response, earlier this month Democratic state legislators filed their own lawsuit asking the Commonwealth Court to move the mail-in ballot deadline to a week after the election for any mail-in ballot postmarked Election Day.  Some election boards said they were overwhelmed by the number of voters choosing to use mail-in ballots, a reaction over fears concerning social distancing.

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit, who include the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said of the Trump federal lawsuit, “Even the clear fact that mail-in voting is safe and an important health measure in these times has not stopped litigants in pending federal court litigation from making wild unsupported assertions or challenging even clear provisions of Pennsylvania statutes.”

In their lawsuit, the Democrats noted that some polling places had been consolidated as part of the state’s efforts to quell the spread of COVID-19 by encouraging social distancing.

In the June primary, according to statistics obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State and the Susquehanna County Voter Registration office, of the county’s 15,150 registered Republicans, 2,101 or 13.8%, voted by either mail-in or absentee ballot, compared with 1,776, or 24.7%, of the county’s 7,166 registered Democrats.  Overall, according to county records, a total of 3,877 voters used mail-in and absentee ballots.  Of that 3,877, 3,221 voted by mail-in ballots and 647 voted by absentee ballots with the remainder accounted for by members of the military, overseas civilians, emergency voters and other categories.   Statewide, approximately 1.8 million voters chose to vote by mail in the June primary.

In Susquehanna County during the 2016 election, 12,891 voted for Trump while 5,123 voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

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