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Pa. appellate court sides with Trump in fight over ID deadlines for voters, tossing small number of ballots

The ruling delivered a minor win in Trump ongoing legal war to challenge the integrity of Pennsylvania's election results. But the number of votes thrown out by the ruling is expected to be small.

Workers count mail-in ballots Nov. 4 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.
Workers count mail-in ballots Nov. 4 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A Pennsylvania appellate court handed President Donald Trump’s campaign a minor victory Thursday, barring counties from including in their final vote tallies a small pool of mail ballots from people who had failed to provide required ID by a Monday deadline.

In a two-page order, a Commonwealth Court judge struck down a decision by the Wolf administration to give voters more time, postelection, to fulfill the ID requirement.

State law requires all voters who applied to vote by mail to have their identification validated against state records by Nov. 9. However, just before the election, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar pushed that date back by three days, citing a court decision earlier this year that allowed late-arriving mail ballots to be counted as long as they had been mailed by Nov. 3 and received within three days of that date.

In her order Thursday, Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt ruled that Boockvar had no authority to do that.

State officials did not immediately return requests for comment on whether they intended to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The case decided by Leavitt on Wednesday was a relatively minor skirmish in the wider legal war the Trump campaign is waging in multiple state and federal courtrooms across Pennsylvania with the goal of delegitimizing the integrity of the state’s election results.

None of the votes affected by Thursday’s ruling had yet been included in the state’s official tally — which as of that evening had Joe Biden at a 54,000-vote advantage over Trump.

It was unclear just how many ballots statewide would now be thrown out. The number is likely to be small compared with the larger pools of votes Republicans are seeking to have tossed in other ongoing court fights across the state.

In Philadelphia, the state’s largest county, city election officials had flagged that only about 2,100 mail ballots still in danger of being disqualified because the voter had not provided proof of ID with their application — typically done by providing a driver’s license number — or the proof they did provide did not match information on voter rolls.

City officials issued the full list of potentially affected voters on Wednesday in hopes that they would provide the necessary information by the Thursday deadline. Only the ballots of voters who did would be thrown out by the Commonwealth Court order. The rest would have been disqualified anyway.

Still, Trump’s campaign lawyers hailed the court’s decision as a significant victory.

“This supports our assertion that the secretary of state has continued to play fast and loose with deadlines and dates in this election,” the campaign’s chief legal counsel, Matt Morgan, said.

He explained that while none of the pending lawsuits may individually affect enough votes to tilt the outcome of the state’s election in Trump’s favor, the campaign hoped that with a few favorable rulings such as Leavitt’s, they could narrow Biden’s lead to within the 0.5 point margin that would trigger an automatic recount under state law.

As of Thursday evening, Biden held a nearly 0.8% lead.

In shifting the ID deadline, Boockvar, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, had argued that because a mid-September Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision had created a three-day grace period for late-arriving mail ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 to arrive in county election offices, the ID deadlines should naturally be extended as well.

Leavitt, a Republican, disagreed, noting in her order that had the Supreme Court’s justices wanted an extension, they could have said so in their earlier ruling.

Boockvar did not respond specifically Thursday to the ruling. But in a filing Thursday in another Trump legal challenge — filed in federal court in Williamsport — she accused the campaign of waging a “desperate and unfounded attempt to interfere” with the state’s electoral process,

“The voters of Pennsylvania have spoken,” her attorneys wrote. “The counties are busy finishing the tabulation of those votes and [Boockvar] is preparing to certify the results.”

That case, filed Monday, is the most comprehensive distillation of the Trump campaign’s myriad complaints about voting in Pennsylvania. It is set to be heard in a series of hearings in Williamsport scheduled for next week.

It incorporates arguments the campaign is also pursuing in several parallel state and federal actions across Pennsylvania — notably a complaint that GOP monitors were kept too far from vote counting in Philadelphia and other counties — and asks U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann to bar the state from certifying its election results.

But notably, despite the president’s frequent public claims of widespread and systemic voter fraud, the suit fails to make even a single allegation — let alone provide evidence — of one ballot being deliberately cast illegally.

Instead, it focuses entirely on complaints about the process of how administrators oversaw the casting and counting of votes. The suit is rife with speculative reports and theories of wrongdoing from Trump’s on-the-ground monitors in Philadelphia, its suburbs and Allegheny, Centre and Northampton Counties — all of which broke decisively for Biden.

» READ MORE: Trump’s campaign is challenging mail and provisional ballots at record rates in Philly and its suburbs

In a brief filed with the court Thursday, the campaign acknowledged its lack of evidence, saying its goal was to persuade the judge to halt the certification of Pennsylvania’s election results long enough to find information to support their theories of wrongdoing.

“There is no question that [Pennsylvania counties] have counted and continue to count thousands of invalid ballots,” campaign lawyer Linda Kerns, of Philadelphia, wrote. “The only question is how many.”

In their own brief, lawyers representing several of the implicated counties scoffed at what they described as an attempt to “disenfranchise all Pennsylvania voters who legally cast a ballot.”

“This court should see this lawsuit for what it is,” the attorneys wrote. “A transparent and premeditated attack on our electoral system. … There should be no mistake, this case … is a candidate’s audacious attempt to overturn the result of a free and fair election.”