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Pennsylvania court sides with Democrats on extending ballot deadlines

Howie Hawkins, then a New York gubernatorial candidate, is shown in 2018 during a debate in Albany.
Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins did not strictly follow election procedures and cannot appear on the Pennsylvania ballot, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
(Associated Press)

Pennsylvania’s highest court gave the Democratic Party a series of victories Thursday, including one allowing repairs to glitches and gray areas in the battleground state’s fledgling mail-in voting law and another that kicked the Green Party’s presidential candidate off the November ballot.

The state Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority, granted the party’s request to order a three-day extension of Pennsylvania’s election day deadline to count mailed-in ballots. And it ruled that the Green Party’s candidate for president did not strictly follow procedures for getting on the ballot in November and cannot appear on it.

Ballots that are eligible to be counted must be postmarked by the time polls close and be received by county election boards at 5 p.m. on Nov. 6, three days after the Nov. 3 election. Republicans opposed changing the election day deadline.

Most states make election day the deadline, but 18 states — about half of which backed President Trump in the 2016 election — have a post-election day deadline.

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These states will probably decide if Joe Biden or President Trump wins the election. And their absentee ballot laws could determine when we find out.

The court’s ruling also authorized the use of satellite election offices and drop boxes by counties.

Areas with heavy concentrations of registered Democratic voters, Philadelphia and its heavily populated suburbs, are planning to use satellite election offices and drop boxes to help relieve the pressure from an avalanche of mailed-in ballots expected in the presidential election.

Republicans had sought to outlaw the use of such drop boxes or satellite election offices, saying they are not explicitly authorized under state law.

In a slightly earlier decision Thursday, the high court along the same partisan lines reversed a ruling by a Republican judge in a lower court on the candidacy of Green Party presidential nominee Howie Hawkins.

The court’s two Republicans agreed the Green Party did not meet the law’s requirements, but, in a dissenting opinion, said it might be possible to allow the Green Party to fix it retroactively.

The Hawkins and Biden campaigns did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Democrats have long gone to court to keep Green Party candidates off the ballot, worried that they will siphon otherwise liberal voters in close contests against Republicans in the politically polarized state.

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In 2016, Trump beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by just over 44,000 votes in Pennsylvania, providing a crucial stepping stone to the White House. The Green Party’s nominee that year, Jill Stein, drew nearly 50,000 votes.

In this case, Democratic Party activists challenged irregularities in how the Green Party filed affidavits for the presidential candidate that are supposed to accompany paperwork with at least 5,000 voter signatures to get on the ballot.

COVID-19 has led to a push for vote by mail, but advocates face logistical and legal hurdles — and “rigged election” claims from President Trump.

A 2019 state law greatly expanded access to mail-in balloting in Pennsylvania and, fueled by concerns over the pandemic, more than 3 million voters are expected to cast ballots by mail in the Nov. 3 election. That’s more than 10 times the number who voted by mail in Pennsylvania in the 2016 election.

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Polls show a tight race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden in Pennsylvania. Losing the state could prove fatal to Biden’s chances of defeating Trump. No Democrat has won the presidency without winning Pennsylvania since Harry S. Truman in 1948.

The high court’s rulings come as Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Legislature are at a stalemate over some of the issues, less than seven weeks before the election.

To a great extent, they are clashing over how to prevent vast numbers of ballots from being discarded and how to head off the specter of a presidential election result hanging in limbo on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania.

The court also upheld the state’s poll-watcher law, which Trump’s campaign had sought to invalidate in federal court.

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Under that law, poll watchers — a political party-appointed volunteer who sits inside of a polling place to monitor election day activity for perceived irregularities — must be a registered voter from the county.

Republicans say they are unable to muster enough poll watchers in Philadelphia, where one in five of Pennsylvania’s Democratic voters live. Democrats charge that lifting the long-standing restriction would open the floodgates to voter intimidation in polling places.

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