US Supreme Court backs Republicans in Pennsylvania ballots

WASHINGTON, Oct 11 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with an unsuccessful Republican candidate for a Pennsylvania judgeship, rejecting a lower court’s ruling that had allowed the counting of mail-in ballots in the race he had tried to block because the voters neglected to write the date on them.

The justices vacated the decision by the Philadelphia-based 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals as requested by David Ritter, who lost his 2021 bid for a seat on the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas to a Democratic rival by five votes after 257 absentee ballots without date notations were spoken.

The High Court’s action means the 3rd Circuit ruling cannot be used as precedent in the three states covered by this regional federal appeals court — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — to allow the counting of ballots with minor deficiencies, such as the voter not fill in the date. Vacating the ruling does not change Ritter’s loss in his race.

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The 3rd Circuit had ruled that invalidating the undated ballots would violate a provision of a landmark 1964 federal law called the Civil Rights Act that was intended to ensure that minor voting errors do not deny anyone the right to vote.

Under Pennsylvania law, voters are required to write the date on the outer envelope of a mail-in ballot. The 3rd Circuit found that requirement “immaterial” to determining their qualifications as voters.

In his appeal, Ritter argued that the vote-by-mail rules improve election administration and deter fraud.

The United States Supreme Court in June rejected Ritter’s bid to block the counting of the undated ballots. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented from that decision. Alito wrote that the 3rd Circuit’s ruling “could well affect the outcome” of this year’s election. Voters go to the polls on Nov. 8 in the midterm elections, where Republicans seek to wrest control of Congress from Democrats.

Ritter told the Supreme Court that unless the 3rd Circuit ruling was stricken from the books, it would allow undated mail ballots to be counted in future Pennsylvania elections and would “threaten to invalidate countless mail voting rules” across the country. Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers echoed Ritter’s warning.

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

The Civil Rights Act provision at issue prohibits officials from disqualifying a voter’s ballot because of an error that is not “material” to determining whether the person was qualified to vote, such as their age or citizenship. The law targeted practices common in the Southern states during the era of racial segregation that used minor voting errors to block blacks from voting.

Several Republican-led states have adopted stricter voting rules, including for mail-in ballots, in the wake of Republican Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential re-election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Trump has made false claims that the election was stolen from him through widespread voter fraud. More Democratic voters than Republicans cast mail-in ballots in the 2020 election.

In Pennsylvania, there is a closely watched U.S. Senate race between Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman that could help decide which party controls that chamber.

The May ruling from the 3rd Circuit came in a lawsuit by several elderly Democratic and Republican voters who were upset that their votes would not be counted for neglecting to write the date on the submitted ballot — what they called a “meaningless technicality .”

Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers said in a filing with the Supreme Court that the 3rd Circuit’s ruling threatened an orderly November election. A number of conservative groups active on voting issues also urged the justices to vacate the 3rd Circuit’s ruling.

The 3rd Circuit’s decisions also apply to the US Virgin Islands territory.

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Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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