A rare spurt of important victories, in three courthouses stretched across the country, has voting rights advocates breathing a little easier about the prospects for a smooth and reliable presidential election.
In battleground Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court significantly eased the use of mail-in ballots on Thursday by ordering they be counted even if they arrive three days after Election Day and by permitting an expanded deployment of drop boxes.
A few hours later, a federal judge blocked a law in tossup Michigan that makes it a crime to hire drivers to take someone else to the polls.
And by day's end another federal judge, in Washington state, had blocked all the operational and policy changes made by the Postal Service this summer, concluding the way they had slowed the mail in recent months would amount to "voter disenfranchisement" if continued into November.
In addition to those legal wins, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy apologized for missteps in his agency's efforts to help voters plan ahead if they choose to use absentee ballots — most recently a postcard sent to every household nationwide that offered blanket advice in conflict with the rules in many states. During a video conference with state officials he said the mailing was not an effort at disinformation, hoping to rebut persistent criticism he's working to undermine voting by mail at the behest of his political patron, President Trump.
Thursday's wave of developments provided an unusual blanket of good news for both good-government advocates and Democrats, who are working to assure the viability and legitimacy of an election that because of the coronavirus pandemic will be conducted away from polling places more than ever before.
So far, they have lost more of their lawsuits than they have won, including defeats in seven of eight cases that have been resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. And all the while they have been buffeted by relentless and false claims from President Trump that liberalized mail-in voting will be the means of widespread fraud.
The election might "NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because of mail-in ballots, he said in a Thursday tweet that Twitter marked as misleading. "Stop Ballot Madness!"
One of the major problems with a reliable if not speedy count, in reality, is the disconnect between the policies put in place because of the pandemic to encourage the use of absentee ballots and the laws still on the books effectively restricting their use.
The high court ruling in Harrisburg helps resolve that in a state both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are counting on — and where the use of mail-in ballots surged for this summer's primary but 20,000 of them (almost half the margin by which Trump carried the state last time) were not counted because they arrived after the polls closed. The same rule is in effect in 32 other states.
Deciding a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party, the court said mailed votes arriving at county election offices by the close of business Nov. 6 would be counted — so long as they were mailed by Nov. 3. An envelope with a missing or illegible postmark must also be counted, the court said, "unless a preponderance of the evidence" shows it was mailed after the polls closed.
The ruling has the potential to make Pennsylvania the focus of a national cliffhanger if the margin is as tight as expected, tens of thousands of envelopes must still be opened in the days after the election — and the 20 electoral votes at stake decide if Trump or Biden wins. (Another state law, not touched by this case, says election officials must wait until the morning of Election Day to begin processing the piles of mailed ballots they receive in the weeks beforehand. The state expects absentee votes to account for half this year's likely total of 6 million.)
The justices also allowed expanded use of drop boxes for absentee ballots, an option for those voting at the last minute and not confident in the Postal Service. The Trump campaign has sued in federal court to prevent placement of the receptacles, arguing they will incubate fraud, but the judge was waiting to see how the state lawsuit concluded before starting proceedings in that case.
The court also removed the Green Party's presidential ticket from the ballot, a decision boosting Biden in a different way. The progressive party's 2016 nominee, Jill Stein, won almost 50,000 votes in the state, while Democrat Hillary Clinton came up just 44,000 votes short.
But Trump won on a couple of fronts. The justices said ballots that do not arrive inside a second "secrecy envelope" may be disqualified and third parties will still be prevented from collecting and returning mail ballots — the practice, legal in many states, that Republicans deride as "ballot harvesting."
The ruling was narrower but still significant in Michigan, with 16 electoral votes vital to the prospects of both candidates. (Trump won last time by just 11,000 votes.)
Judge Stephanie Davis of Flint lifted the restrictions on paying to transport people to polling places in response to a lawsuit by Priorities USA, a pro-Biden group that is working on a big get-out-the vote operation. Because of the unusual state law, Michigan has been the only place in the country where Uber does not offer discounted rides to the polls.
But Davis, named to the federal court by Trump, declined to ease the state's restrictions on political organizations helping people complete absentee ballot applications. Only voters and their family can handle the paperwork.
A federal judge in Washington state on Thursday granted a request from 14 states to temporarily block operational changes within the Postal Service that have been blamed for a slowdown in mail delivery, saying Trump and DeJoy are "involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service" that could disrupt the 2020 election.
The federal judge assigned the Postal Service lawsuit brought by 14 state attorneys general, Stanley Bastian of Yakima, was an Obama nominee. He temporarily blocked the changes in the post offices systems nationwide after declaring that Trump and DeJoy "are involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service."
DeJoy reversed several of the most controversial policies on the day the states filed their suit, but the judge said he was not taking the USPS leader at his word that would continue. Bastian said he was most focused on assuring all election-related envelopes continue to be treated as first class mail, a longstanding practice DeJoy backed away from but has now re-embraced.
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