Judicial candidate Zachary Cohen, right, holds hands with his wife, Virginia, while awaiting results of the final ballot count Thursday in the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown (Photo by Donna Fisher/Armchair Lehigh Valley).
By Katherine Reinhard and Robert H. Orenstein
ALLENTOWN — When 257 disputed ballots were counted this morning, Zachary Cohen gained barely enough votes to surpass David Ritter to win a seat as a Lehigh County judge.
Cohen won by five votes, according to the initial certification by the county Election Board. Before today, Ritter held a 71-vote lead, according to unofficial returns.
The ballot count from the November 2021 election came after a legal battle that had more plot twists than a John Grisham novel, with hundreds of pages of legal filings and proceedings in county, state and federal courts and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. There was even another election – the May 17 primary – before this judicial race was settled.
The dispute began last November when Ritter learned the county election board planned to count 257 mail-in ballots that lacked handwritten dates on outer envelopes. Pennsylvania law requires that voters sign and date outer envelopes used to return ballots.
Since Democrats tend to use mail-in ballots much more than Republicans, it was possible for Cohen to overtake Ritter if those ballots were counted.
Ritter sued to halt the count and lost in county court, where Judge Edward Reibman determined the ballots should be counted. Ritter won an appeal before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Cohen then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which opted against hearing the case.
That prompted the ACLU, on behalf of five voters — Linda Miglori, Francis J. Fox, Richard E. Richards, Kenneth Ringer and Sergio Rivas — to file a federal lawsuit against Lehigh County in January. In March, Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr. of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania determined the ballots should not be counted.
The ACLU then took the case to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that not counting the 257 ballots for such a minor omission disenfranchised voters and violated the Civil Rights Act. The court agreed on May 20 and said the ballots should be counted.
Ritter then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the count, which led Justice Samuel Alito to issue a stay on the ballot count pending further review. On June 9, the full court, in a 6-3 vote, declined to hear the case, clearing the way for Lehigh County to count the disputed ballots.
On Thursday, 226 days after the Nov. 2, 2021, election, the remaining ballots were counted.
Katherine Reinhard and Robert H. Orenstein are reporters for Armhchair Lehigh Valley, a political newsletter, where this story first appeared.
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