President Trump achieved a small but significant victory in Pennsylvania
Early in October, United States Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh drew a line in the sand, stating that the power to set voting rules within a state rests solely with the state's Legislature. This means that judges, politicians, and bureaucrats cannot unilaterally alter those rules. On Thursday, Kavanaugh's statement may have borne fruit, for a Pennsylvania judge held that secretary of state Kathy Boockvar could not authorize 10,000 votes when the voters' identities were not confirmed.
Back in October, in Andino v. Middleton, the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a federal district court could use the Wuhan virus as an excuse to change South Carolina election laws. The pre-Barrett, eight-member Court unilaterally, and with minimal comment, reversed the district court's ruling.
Justice Kavanaugh used the decision to send out a warning to judges across America. He reminded them that the states' legislatures, which are "politically accountable," have the sole responsibility for changing election laws, even when there is a pandemic:
It follows that a State legislature's decision either to keep or to make changes to election rules to address COVID–19 ordinarily "should not be subject to second-guessing by an 'unelected federal judiciary,' which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people."
Ultimately, he said, district courts lack the appropriate accountability to second-guess the Legislature. Therefore, as elections draw near, district courts should not interfere with state election laws:
Second, for many years, this Court has repeatedly emphasized that federal courts ordinarily should not alter state election rules in the period close to an election.
Commonwealth court president Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, an appellate court judge, was paying attention to Kavanaugh's warning. The Trump campaign had appeared before her asking that the state disqualify ballots from first-time voters when those voters could not confirm the identification by November 9. Earlier, Boockvar had unilaterally declared that these voters could have until November 12 to confirm their identification:
Ms. Boockvar argued to the court that the guidance came from a provision in the commonwealth's election code that allows voters to prove their identities "within six calendar days following the election." Because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended the ballot deadline to Nov. 6, then the deadline for voters to confirm their ID would also be extended.
But the Trump campaign disagreed. "If the deadline is calculated as the statute is written, then as it pertains to the November 3, 2020 General Election, this deadline for voters to resolve proof of identification issues is Monday, November 9, 2020, not November 12, 2020," the campaign wrote in a filing. They also said Ms. Boockvar lacked the authority to give such guidance.
Admittedly, the decision affects only a small number of voters, and it comes from a lower court judge. Nevertheless, it's important for two reasons. First, when the Supreme Court had only eight justices, the fact that four justices supported Boockvar's decision meant that the matter was bounced back to the state without Supreme Court review. Leavitt's decision may help strengthen the Supreme Court's resolve when this issue returns to it, as well as multiple other non-legislative election changes in Pennsylvania and other states.
Second, it is yet another decision in a growing trend of courts acknowledging that only a state's legislature can change voting rules. (And all these unconstitutional rule changes have favored Democrats.) With every decision, more pressure goes on other judges to abide by this crucial constitutional stricture.
Image: Supreme Court by Angela N. Creative Commons.