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The 2020 twists and turns just keep coming.
A Supreme Court fight in an election year is one thing. One in October? That’s unprecedented in modern politics. But here we are: The flags weren’t even lowered to half-staff for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before focus turned to who President Donald Trump would pick to replace her (we’ll find out soon), and whether Republicans would join him in rushing an October Surprise onto the high court (they will). How this plays out on the campaign trail remains to be seen.
It’s another busy week on that trail in Pennsylvania, where Trump held a big rally last night at Pittsburgh International Airport — his second trip to the region and his fifth to the state in about a month.
We’ll take you through what we know — and still don’t know — about the basic rules of an election now just weeks away, and what that uncertainty means.
Someone just tell us the rules
Election Day is 40 days away. And the rules are still up in the air.
For months, public officials in Pennsylvania — and across the country — have been trying to figure out the best way to hold an election during a pandemic, with millions of voters expected to cast ballots by mail. In Pennsylvania, there’s been legislative wrangling, concerns about mail delays, and lawsuits galore.
The state Supreme Court seemed to deliver the final word late last week, when it extended the mail ballot deadline, approved the use of drop boxes, and ordered election officials to reject so-called naked ballots — those that don’t include a second “secrecy” envelope within the mail envelope.
So now we know the rules, right? Maybe not.
Republicans are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court — if the court takes up the appeal, it could be one of its first cases as an 8-person, post-Ginsburg body. And Philadelphia’s top elections official urged the state legislature to change the law so naked ballots can be counted, saying tens of thousands or even 100,000 votes could be thrown out — in a state Trump won by 44,000 votes last time. She warned that naked ballots could put the state at the center of “significant postelection legal controversy, the likes of which we have not seen since Florida in 2000.”
There isn’t enough data to assess whether enough naked ballots could be thrown out to change the outcome in Pennsylvania, which is increasingly seen as the state most likely to determine the winner. But big voter turnout in Philadelphia is key to Joe Biden’s prospects. Biden needs a show of force in the city and its suburbs — and in other metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Allentown — to offset Trump’s strength just about everywhere else.
And in the June primary, Democrats voted by mail in far greater numbers than Republicans.
Now we just have to wait for the United States Supreme Court.
-With Jonathan Lai
Answering your questions about naked ballots
What are naked ballots?
When counting mail ballots, elections officials first check the information on the mailing envelope to confirm the validity of the vote. Then the outer envelope is opened and the secrecy envelope containing the ballot is set aside.
From that point forward, the vote is anonymous.
Naked ballots are ones without those secrecy envelopes. Nothing else is necessarily improper with the ballots themselves or the mailing envelopes.
What was the court ruling?
The Trump campaign and Republicans sued Pennsylvania in federal court over several election rules, including arguing that naked ballots should not be counted. The state Democratic Party filed a countersuit in state court.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled they should be thrown out under state law.
How many naked ballots will be thrown out in 2020?
It’s hard to say.
The Pennsylvania Department of State advised counties to accept naked ballots as valid and count them in this year’s primary. Most counties did so without tracking them. So there’s no statewide estimate for how many naked ballots there were.
— Jonathan Lai (@Elaijuh)
What we’re paying attention to
💻 [The Philadelphia Inquirer] ‘Disgusted’ voters in the Philly suburbs could help Biden offset Trump’s gains in Pennsylvania
💻 [The Philadelphia Inquirer] How Trump and Biden look in a county that’s a ‘microcosm’ of Pennsylvania
💻 [The Philadelphia Inquirer] A Pennsylvania House race looks a lot like the campaign between Trump and Biden
📰 [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] Rallying at Pittsburgh International, Trump gives rundown of nation’s political tenor
Overheard on the campaign trail
“This whole year has been an unmitigated, rolling down the hill, s—storm.”
— Vashti Bandy, a leader of Tuesdays with Toomey, a group that organizes against Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, on the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Voters weigh in on the court fight
We’ve been talking to voters around the state about Ginsburg’s passing and filling her seat. Few people said it would sway their vote. And that makes sense. People plugged in enough to know a lot about the Supreme Court are probably high-information voters who have likely made up their mind about November.
A new Politico/Morning Consult poll found that half of registered voters think the winner of the presidential election should pick the next justice, while 37% said Trump should do so regardless.
But conversations on the ground also reminded us that, as dug in politically as many people are this year, people are also nuanced and complex. Take one voter we spoke with in Rochester, northwest of Pittsburgh.
Laura Keys, 36, is a conservative gun owner who opposes abortion rights. She also has an 18-year-old daughter who is gay. A Trump flag flies beside a rainbow flag in front of her home in Beaver County.
“As much as I want a Republican in there, as much as I want my party to make progress in the way that I want, I also worry about my kids and what their lives will be like if I get my way,” Keys said.
She’s worried a more conservative court could threaten her daughter’s ability to get married or work, and hopes Trump picks a more moderate nominee.
“Trump is gonna push to get someone who is very far right wing,” Keys said. “He’ll push to get it done before election day. And that scares me.”
We’ve been talking to the members of our Election 2020 Roundtable about this, too. More on that soon.
-With Jessica Calefati
Everything you need to know about voting by mail in Pennsylvania [Philadelphia Inquirer video]
All your questions about voting in Pennsylvania this year, answered [Philadelphia Inquirer]
First presidential debate: Tuesday, Sept. 29
Vice presidential debate: Wednesday, Oct. 7
Second presidential debate: Wednesday, Oct. 15
Third presidential debate: Thursday, Oct. 22