With the White House on the line and Pennsylvania and its largest city in the spotlight, President Donald Trump escalated his legal fights over the state’s vote count Thursday, sending demonstrators from both sides of the political divide out onto city streets.
Amid a whirlwind of new lawsuits, the president’s campaign scored an early victory in court that briefly disrupted the tallying of ballots in Philadelphia and slowed it down even after the counting resumed.
But resume it did, and city elections officials continued their periodic updates to their published vote totals, with the number of outstanding mail ballots slowly but surely dropping from more than 120,000 Thursday morning to less than 50,000 by 10 p.m.
Despite the flurry of court activity, none of it appeared capable of delivering Trump a reelection victory. Biden appeared to be on the verge of winning the presidency, while Trump repeated his evidence-free claim that the vote was being stolen out from under him by pervasive fraud.
“We will not allow the corruption to steal such an important election,” Trump told the nation Thursday night.
The Biden camp dismissed the GOP’s legal maneuvering as empty posturing.
“I want to emphasize that for their purposes these lawsuits don’t have to have merit,” his campaign lawyer Bob Bauer said Thursday. “That’s not the purpose. … It is to create an opportunity for them to message falsely about what’s taking place in the electoral process.”
The pause in the city’s count — which lasted only about an hour or two Thursday morning — occurred as election officials scrambled to comply with a state appellate court order mandating that monitors from Trump’s campaign be granted closer access to the counting operation.
Still, the president’s campaign declared it a “major victory" for Trump in a city that he said was controlled by a “corrupt Democrat machine" since at least his student days 50 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. Within minutes of the ruling, a circus-like atmosphere erupted outside the Convention Center, with Trump campaign surrogates flying in from out of town to demand they be let into the hall while a raucous crowd of anti-Trump demonstrators gathered to cheer on the count.
Within hours Republican lawyers had returned to court — this time in front of a federal judge — claiming that the city’s accommodations still weren’t good enough.
“Are there people in the room?” asked an exasperated-looking U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond, referring to the monitors, before ultimately dismissing the challenge and telling the campaign to work out an agreement with the city.
The legal skirmishing over Philadelphia’s count came as GOP lawyers fanned out to courtrooms across the state challenging isolated tranches of ballots — in some cases involving hundreds of votes, in others as few as 38 ballots.
In Montgomery County, the Trump campaign sued in Common Pleas Court to challenge about 600 mail votes they allege had been improperly counted, despite such deficiencies as missing signatures or absent secrecy envelopes.
In Northampton County, GOP lawyers appealed an earlier court decision that found the county had acted properly when it released lists of voters with flawed mail ballots to representatives from both political parties. The county said it had done so to permit voters to fix mistakes before their votes were thrown out.
Meanwhile, Commonwealth Court scheduled a hearing for Friday morning in a case over the same general issue — the legality of the decision by certain counties to give voters with incorrectly filed mail ballots a chance to correct them.
As in other battleground states such as Georgia and Michigan, where Trump has launched similar legal offensives but with limited success, most of the Pennsylvania suits have been small-scale efforts targeting local election officials' handling of a relatively few mail ballots.
“While every vote matters and it matters deeply that each of these votes get counted, the numbers we are looking at are not so significant that it’s likely to make or break anything,” said Suzanne Almeida, director of the voter advocacy group Common Cause Pennsylvania.
Still, a few crucial court victories here and there for Trump that would cast even a few thousand votes into doubt could improve the president’s chances, if the margins in any given state still counting are thin enough.
That said, the case in Pennsylvania upon which the Trump campaign has pinned its greatest hope for court intervention may not end up affecting as many ballots as he would hope.
The campaign has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the state’s three-day grace period for late-arriving mail votes.
The extension was authorized by Pennsylvania’s highest court in mid-September in a ruling that allowed counties to count ballots received up until 5 p.m. Friday — as long as they had been mailed by Election Day.
But even if the Supreme Court were to take up the case, overturn the extended deadline, and order votes that arrived between Election Day and Friday thrown out, the number of late-arriving votes has not been overwhelming so far.
Statewide, “it’s not a huge number,” Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State, Kathy Boockvar, told CNN Thursday, noting that some smaller counties had received none. Even in the state’s largest counties, she said, the numbers hovered around 500 at most as of midday Thursday.
“Unless it’s super close, I don’t see this making or breaking this one way or the other,” Boockvar said. “But in the meantime, we’re going to be counting every ballot.”
The only court victory Trump has secured so far in Pennsylvania came Thursday morning in Philadelphia, when Commonwealth Court Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon, a Republican from Delaware County, ordered Philadelphia’s election officials to allow Trump campaign canvassing monitors within six feet of any tables where vote counting was taking place.
Earlier, the campaign had complained that its observers had been kept behind waist-high barriers positioned too far away — as far as 100 feet from some vote counters — to meaningfully watch the process for any irregularities. Those restrictions applied to both Republican and Democratic canvassing monitors.
City officials quickly appealed Fizzano Cannon’s order to the state Supreme Court, arguing that their setup complied with state law and took into consideration necessary precautions to protect vote counters during the coronavirus pandemic. The court has not indicated whether it will hear the appeal.
So after the brief midday pause to reorganize parts of the massive Convention Center hall where the counting is taking place to bring it into compliance with Fizzano Cannon’s ruling, they quickly resumed counting.
Crowds grew outside the Convention Center, spurred on by the president’s campaign’s false claims that illegitimate votes were being tallied.
With Trump surrogates Corey Lewandowski and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi egging them on, a crowd of about 50 supporters waved signs saying “Stop the Cheat!” and “Sorry, polls are closed.”
In response, a much larger group of demonstrators — that eventually grew to include DJs blasting music and a drum line — gathered to cheer on the counters.
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym stopped by the dance party-like atmosphere after observing the counting process inside.
“The Trump campaign and his political operatives want you to think that somehow there is some kind of circus going on,” she told the crowd. “But they’re the circus, and they’re the clowns right now.”
The court fights continued into the evening. The count continued edging Biden toward a lead in Pennsylvania that could deliver him the presidency.
And at the federal courthouse, Judge Diamond, the George W. Bush appointee hearing the campaign’s challenge over canvassing monitors, urged the two sides just to cooperate during the city’s moment in the sun.
“The world has its eyes on Philadelphia,” he told the lawyers before sending them home for the night. “It’ll take its eyes off soon enough.”
Staff writers Anna Orso, Erin McCarthy, Rob Tornoe, and Andrew Seidman as well as Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.