In a sweeping victory for Democrats, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued three significant rulings Thursday that extended the deadline for absentee ballots, allowed more ballot drop boxes and removed the Green Party candidate from the presidential ballot.
The rulings come following court challenges from the state Democratic Party, which has been aiming to ease Pennsylvania’s absentee voting procedures amid the pandemic and a surge in mail-in ballots and to have the Green Party off the ballot due to its potential to take votes from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Thursday’s court decisions essentially set the ground rules for the general election. One of the more significant changes set by the court on Thursday is allowing election officials to count absentee ballots received up to three days after the election, if they are postmarked by Election Day. The change means that thousands of Pennsylvanians whose votes would’ve been rejected for arriving after Election Day will now be counted.
The Trump campaign and Pennsylvania Republicans had sought to place a hard ban on ballots arriving after Election Day. They also wanted to be able to recruit poll-watchers from neighboring counties, but the court rejected that request and upheld a state law banning out-of-county poll-watchers.
Sharif Street, a Democratic state senator who’s vice chair of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party, hailed the decision as a major victory for the party amid Postal Service concerns and President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to restrict absentee voting amid the pandemic.
“[I]n the birthplace of American democracy we are not going to have him (the President) turn it into the birthplace of Donald Trump’s voter suppression,” Street told CNN on Thursday following the decision.
The Trump campaign is still challenging the state’s balloting procedures in federal court, though it’s unclear what’s left for a federal judge to consider now that the state court has decided.
Green Party barred
In a 5-2 decision, the top Pennsylvania state court ruled that Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins hadn’t followed proper procedures when submitting his nomination forms to get on the ballot.
The ruling eliminates the final hurdle blocking Pennsylvania from sending out absentee ballots to voters who requested them. The state had been stuck in a holding pattern while the litigation played out in court.
The Green Party “failed to comply with the Election Code’s strict mandate” for how nomination paperwork must be handled, and its attempts to fix the problem “did not suffice to cure that error,” the justices said in a 28-page majority opinion. As a result, “that defect was fatal” to Hawkins’ request to get on the ballot.
Hawkins’ campaign manager, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar, said the Democrats are playing ” legal shenanigans just to knock legitimate competition off of the ballot. I think that they should be afraid of having Greens on the ballot because their party is not offering anything that the working class of this country is actually asking for. We are.”
All five Democrats on the court voted to remove the Green Party, while the two Republicans dissented. The decision came a week after a similar ruling in Wisconsin, where Hawkins was also kicked off the ballot.
“[A]s soon as the ballots are changed, our printer will provide us with a test and we will make sure that everything counts accordingly and then we will start mailing out the ballot,” Debbie Olivieri, Berks County director of elections, told CNN. The county, which includes Reading, is a closely contested battleground.
Olivieri said she had received certification of the final ballot from the state about an hour after the ruling. She said that as of Thursday, the county had just over 58,000 total mail-in ballot requests.
The ruling will also force the county to adjust ballots that had already gone out to overseas voters. Saturday is the deadline for election officials to send absentee ballots to service members and citizens abroad. Olivieri told CNN the county had already been sending absentee ballots to those voters and will now have to send updated ones.
“A lot of the counties had sent them out already; we were one of them. We will now make the updates to those ballots,” Olivieri said. “There’s no way we would have met Saturday’s deadline if we didn’t start that process already.”
Trump touts ‘harvesting’ ruling
In a separate ruling on Thursday, the high court rejected a request from Democrats to allow third-party groups and political organizers to collect and return people’s absentee ballots with their permission – a process sometimes called “ballot harvesting.”
The justices wrote, “It has long been the law of this Commonwealth … that third-person delivery of absentee ballots is not permitted.”
Trump hailed this ruling in a series of tweets, saying, “We will be watching that the Democrats do not Ballot Harvest - a felony. In other words, the Republican Party won on the atrocious Ballot Harvesting Scam.”
He did not mention the other rulings that rejected his campaign’s arguments.
“We look forward to the federal courts weighing in on what ‘Election Day’ actually means, but we applaud this major win for voter integrity,” Trump campaign general counsel Matthew Morgan said, referring to a still-ongoing federal lawsuit about voting procedures in Pennsylvania.
Taken together, the rulings on postmark deadlines and drop-boxes blunts the victory Trump is claiming.
“if you have drop-boxes and a mail system that functions with deadlines it’s less important to have extra assistance of people going around to collect the ballots,” said Mark Gaber, director of trial litigation at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
This story has been updated with information on additional court rulings.
CNN’s Greg Krieg and Pamela Brown contributed to this report.