Nicole Ziccarelli and state Sen. Jim Brewster. (Image via Pittsburgh City Paper)
(*This was updated at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 1/12/21 with statements by Gov. Tom Wolf and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and at 3 p.m. with news about Brewster’s swearing-in.)
More than 300 voters who made minor errors casting their mail-in ballots will still have their votes counted in a close state Senate race, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Nicholas Ranjan clears the way for Democratic incumbent Jim Brewster to be sworn in for a fourth term representing Pennsylvania’s 45th Senate District, which includes parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland County.
Republicans who control the state Senate announced last week that they would not let Brewster take his oath of office until Ranjan ruled on the case brought by Brewster’s Republican opponent Nicole Ziccarelli, whose request to toss to 311 undated mail-in ballots would have erased Brewster’s 69-vote lead in the race and made her the winner.
In a Tuesday tweet, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Senate will return to Harrisburg on Wednesday so Brewster could take his oath of office.
The Senate will return to session at 11 am tomorrow to swear in @SenatorBrewster
— Senator Jake Corman (@JakeCorman) January 12, 2021
Ziccarrelli asked the federal court in November to toss 311 mail-in ballots that had been signed, but not dated, by voters before they were submitted on time to the Allegheny County election bureau.
She said she was deprived of equal protection rights because election officials in Westmoreland County decided to toss undated mail-in ballots, while their counterparts in Allegheny County counted them – a decision the state Supreme Court found lawful in November.
Ranjan upheld the state court’s ruling Tuesday and said the contested ballots should be counted.
“The correct interpretation of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision on Ms. Ziccarelli’s state-court appeal is that the challenged ballots are valid and may properly be counted,” Ranjan wrote. “This causes Ms. Ziccarelli’s federal claims to fail on the merits.”
Ziccarrelli also made her case in a petition she filed with the Senate on Jan. 1, contesting the election results and asking the Senate to declare her the winner of the 45th District race.
The Senate Republican caucus cited that petition and Ziccarelli’s court case as the reason for blocking Brewster from taking his oath of office during the Senate’s biennial inauguration ceremony last week – a stance that led to a chaotic shouting match as Democrats insisted the Republican majority recognize Brewster as the winner.
Corman also implied that the Republican caucus would consider granting Ziccarelli’s petition and deny Brewster the seat if Ranjan didn’t rule on the merits of her federal case.
But Corman said last week that the Senate would immediately seat Brewster if Ranjan ruled that the ballots should count.
*Senate Democrats and Gov. Tom Wolf cheered Ranjan’s decision Tuesday and called on GOP leaders to let Brewster start his fourth term.
“My colleague Senator Brewster won more votes, affirmed that victory in state courts, and had it confirmed by the Pennsylvania Department of State,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in a statement. “He’s been declared the winner more times and in more ways than should be necessary, but I believe that the matter is now unequivocally settled. I look forward to Senator Brewster’s swearing in ceremony and watching him take the oath of office I know he will faithfully abide every day of his service.”
Wolf, who condemned Senate Republicans when they blocked Brewster’s inauguration, said they shouldn’t keep the 45th district seat empty any longer.
“Senate Republicans may not like the outcome of the election, but they cannot overturn the will of the people in western Pennsylvania or ignore court decisions,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement. “The people’s ballots are counted, and the results are accurate. Refusing to seat Sen. Brewster and leaving the district without a voice would be unethical and undemocratic.”
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