ISABEL VAN BRUGEN
August 24, 2020
A federal judge in Pennsylvania on Aug. 23 ordered a stay on a lawsuit filed by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, the national Republican Party, and four Pennsylvania Republican members of Congress against the state’s decision to expand mail-in voting ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
The federal lawsuit (pdf) filed June 29 in Pittsburgh sues Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and 67 county election boards. It claims that as voters jumped to make use of the greatly broadened eligibility for mail-in ballots during the June 2 primary, practices and procedures by elections officials ran afoul of state law and the state and federal constitutions.
U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan halted the case until Oct. 5, telling Trump’s campaign that its claims must wait, at least until October, for state courts in the presidential battleground to clear up crucial fights, including over collecting and counting mail-in ballots. Ranjan was appointed by Trump in July 2019.
“To be free and fair, elections must be transparent and verifiable,” the lawsuit reads. “Yet, Defendants have inexplicably chosen a path that jeopardizes election security and will lead—and has already led—to the disenfranchisement of voters, questions about the accuracy of election results, and ultimately chaos heading into the upcoming Nov. 3, 2020 General Election.”
“Free and fair elections are essential to the right of Americans to choose through their vote whom they elect to represent them. Upending our entire election process and undermining ballot security through unmonitored by-mail voting is the single greatest threat to free and fair elections.”
The issues are a “direct result” of the state’s “hazardous hurried, and illegal implementation of unmonitored mail-in voting,” the federal lawsuit claims.
A law was passed in the state last year to expand mail-in ballot options to anyone who wanted to vote by mail, even if they did not have a valid reason that would prevent them from voting in person.
The lawsuit claims the new system gives “fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.”
It seeks to outlaw drop boxes or other collection sites that some counties used in the June 2 primary to help gather a record-smashing number of mail-in ballots. Trump’s campaign also wants to stop counties from counting ballots that lack secrecy envelopes, and it also wants to throw out a state law that restricts poll watchers to county residents.
Ranjan ruled Sunday that the case must be halted until October to see whether state courts decide, or at least narrow, the issues raised by Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and four Pennsylvania Republican Congress members Glenn Thompson, Mike Kelly, John Joyce, and Guy Reschenthaler.
“After carefully considering the arguments raised by the parties, the Court finds that the appropriate course is abstention, at least for the time being. In other words, the Court will apply the brakes to this lawsuit, and allow the Pennsylvania state courts to weigh in and interpret the state statutes that undergird Plaintiffs’ federal- constitutional claims,” Ranjan wrote, CNN reported.
After Oct. 5, parties can ask Ranjan to resume claims in the case.
“The President’s fight against the problems of Pennsylvania’s radical new vote-by-mail system has been running on parallel tracks in state and federal court for some time,” Justin Clark, Trump’s deputy campaign manager said in a statement in response to Ranjan’s ruling.
“The judge’s stay today is simply a recognition that the multitude of issues surrounding Pennsylvania’s dangerous voting system—including ballot harvesting and double voting—touch both federal and state constitutional issues,” he continued.
“The federal court is simply going to reserve its judgment on this in the hopes that the state court will resolve these serious issues and guarantee that every Pennsylvanian has their vote counted—once.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.