The Lead

Pa. Supreme Court sides with Philly over Trump campaign in ballot-counting dispute

By: - November 17, 2020 5:08 pm

In a 5-2 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court backed Philadelphia’s policies on observers of vote counting Tuesday, overturning a lower state appeals court.

The ruling, written by Justice Debra Todd, argued that the city had broken no state law by keeping watchers from both Democratic and Republican parties away from election workers processing ballots.

The observers were given an area to roam freely, but were blocked from entering the entire ballot counting area due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the count was taking place.

Days after election day, the Trump campaign and Philadelphia officials agreed to a compromise in federal court. But Todd argued that the issue was not moot because ballots were still being canvassed.

Todd wrote in the majority opinion, backed by all five justices elected as Democrats, that watchers were not deprived of their ability to observe the counting process. 

“The Board’s regulations as applied herein were reasonable in that they allowed candidate  representatives to observe the Board conducting its activities as prescribed under the Election Code,” Todd said.

Any information that could not be gleaned from a distance, Todd argued, the observers were not entitled to under the state’s Election Code, as it would allow them to unlawfully challenge ballots.

The decision also overturned a Commonwealth Court ruling by Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon that mandated that observers must be allowed within six feet of the election workers counting ballots.

It is the one of at least a dozen or more court rulings that has gone against President Donald Trump and his campaign .But the issue has still made it into the national discourse over counting ballots. 

Trump’s campaign reused the issue in a federal lawsuit, asking for a judge to halt Pennsylvania from certifying its election results because ballots were counted without adequate oversight. That claim was later dropped.

Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg also have cited concerns about poll watchers as they pushed for a legislative look at the 2020 election, which will likely come next year.

The Pa. House will review the 2020 election, but it’s unlikely it will change the results

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor noted that an “intense after-action review of the no-excuse mail-in voting regime, which is in its infancy in Pennsylvania,” was about to begin.

As such, Saylor wrote, it is not likely that “the Court’s present ruling, relative to governance that is quite likely to be substantially refined, will be of any importance in the future.”

And in a final note, Saylor called the Trump campaign argument that ballots counted before the compromise on poll watchers should be set aside or thrown out “misguided” short of “demonstrated fraud.”

“Accordingly, to the degree that there is a concern with protecting or legitimizing the will of the Philadelphians who cast their votes while candidate representatives were unnecessarily restrained at the Convention Center, I fail to see that there is any real issue,” Saylor concluded.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.