President Donald Trump’s barrage of lawsuits related to the 2020 presidential election got off to a mixed start on Thursday, with his campaign winning closer access to ballot counting in Philadelphia but losing bids to invalidate a few dozen mail-in ballots in Georgia and for better access to counting in Michigan.
The initial flurry of suits did not appear capable of delivering a reelection victory to the president or even satisfying his repeated demands to stop the count. Instead, they seemed intended to create a cloud of legal uncertainty around the election and preserve a sense of viability around the campaign while Trump lawyers scramble for a strategy that could actually help him win.
That approach was on display Thursday as the Trump campaign loudly touted its victory in Pennsylvania’s largest city, after a state appeals court judge said Trump’s poll-watchers must be permitted to get an up-close look at ballot processing.
Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Court Judge Christine Cannon issued an order mandating that “all candidates, watchers, or candidate representatives be permitted to be present for the canvassing process … and be permitted to observe all aspects of the canvassing process within 6 feet, while adhering to all COVID-19 protocols, including, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.”
Trump’s campaign issued an effusive statement, heralding an incremental improvement in access as a triumph.
"In a major victory for election integrity, election transparency, all Pennsylvania voters, and the rule of law, the Trump Campaign has prevailed in our suit challenging our Republican poll watchers’ complete lack of any meaningful access to the ballot processing and counting process,” deputy campaign manager Justin Clark said.
Clark urged that other Pennsylvania counties allow similar access to GOP observers. The ruling apparently led to a brief delay in vote tallying in Philadelphia. Officials there quickly filed an appeal of the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing that the ruling “jeopardizes both the safety of the City Defendants’ canvass, plus the privacy of voters.”
Trump campaign officials complained Thursday afternoon that their observers were still being blocked from Philadelphia ballot-counting sites by local officials, despite the state appeals court order. In response, the campaign filed a new suit in federal court seeking an immediate injunction to allow their poll watchers in. The two-page lawsuit was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Paul Diamond, an appointee of President George W. Bush.
Spokespeople for the Philadelphia Elections Board did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In another battleground state, Georgia, attorneys for the Trump campaign squared off Thursday morning with lawyers for local election officials over a batch of 53 absentee ballots cast in Chatham County, home to Savannah.
Two witnesses called by Trump lawyers said they saw election officials moving the ballots after the deadline for receipt at 7 p.m. Tuesday. However, the two men said they didn’t actually know when the ballots were received.
But county officials testified that they were certain all 53 ballots arrived prior to the deadline.
“I asked the staff over at the county annex to look at those ballots to ensure they were timely received ballots,” Board of Registrars Chairman Colin McRae said. “I looked at all 53 and all 53
of those ballots were timely received….The time stamps were all — all showed that they were timely received.”
“These ballots were received prior to 7 p.m. on Election Day,” the county’s director of voter registration, Sabrina German, told the court.
She said the batch was set aside because of issues like voters who’d spoiled ballots or used an envelope with the wrong barcode on it. But each was verified as valid and officials confirmed the voter didn’t vote twice, German insisted.
McRae also told the court that ballots that arrived after the deadline were being placed in a box and voters were notified that their ballots were too late.
As the hearing concluded, Trump campaign attorneys seemed to be backpedaling about their original claims. Instead of asking for the batch of 53 ballots to be disqualified, attorney Jonathan Crumly Sr. questioned the security around ballots that arrived after the deadline, calling the circumstances of that “a bit disturbing.”
“As you heard from the two poll observers, there was a significant amount of confusion and lack of clarity provided to them about these 53 ballots,” Crumly said. “The Trump campaign wants every duly and legally submitted ballot — by mail and otherwise — counted.”
Chatham County lawyer Benjamin Perkins said the campaign’s proof of wrongdoing was nonexistent, and he dismissed as “a red herring” the Trump campaign’s claims about a lack of security for late-arriving ballots. “There is no evidence of a non-compliance with the law,” Perkins said.
Georgia Democratic Party lawyer Jeffrey Harris said the Trump campaign’s case was “very unpersuasive.”
After an-hour-and-15-minute-long video hearing, Judge James Bass Jr. made short work of the Trump campaign’s suit, taking all of about 10 seconds to toss it out.
“In light of the comments raised and the points to be made, after listening to the evidence, I’m denying the request and dismissing the petition,” said Bass. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
A hearing in Michigan on a Trump campaign suit demanding greater poll-watching access also found no traction, with a judge there refusing that request after a hearing. Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stevens said the bulk of the campaign’s suit against Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was moot because vote tallying in the state is largely complete.
“On this factual record, I have no basis to find a substantial likelihood of success on the merits as relates to this defendant,” Stevens said. The suit also sought access to videotapes of ballot dropboxes, but the judge said the Trump campaign’s lawyers had not presented enough evidence about the boxes to obtain an order granting access to those videos.
Meanwhile, in Nevada, Trump campaign officials said they planned to file a federal lawsuit over alleged voting irregularities there. Officials said they had evidence of votes being cast in the name of voters who were deceased and others who had not lived in the state for 30 days, as the law requires.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.
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