U.S. Supreme court rejects Republican bid to limit mail-in voting in Pennsylvania

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday allowed an extension of the deadline for mail-in absentee ballots in Pennsylvania for the Nov. 3 elections, declining a Republican request to block a lower court’s ruling that gave voters more time.

FILE PHOTO: Philadelphia City Hall is pictured as early voting for the 2020 President Election begins at a satellite voting location at City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., September 29, 2020. REUTERS/Rachel Wisniewski

The justices, divided 4-4, left in place a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in favor of state Democrats that had extended the deadline for state election officials to receive mail-in ballots postmarked by the evening of Election Day until three days later.

The brief court order noted that four of the court’s five conservative justices would have granted the request. There are currently only eight justices on the usually nine-member court following the death last month of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which left the court with a 5-3 conservative majority.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the three liberal justices in denying the request, with five votes needed for it to be granted.

The decision highlights the impact that President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, could have as a potential deciding vote in election-related cases if -- as expected -- she is confirmed by the Republican-led Senate next week. In her confirmation hearing last week, Barrett did not commit to stepping aside in any election cases involving Trump.

“With nearly a million votes already cast in Pennsylvania, we support the court’s decision not to meddle in our already-working system,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The state Republican Party and Republican officials in Pennsylvania separately had appealed the state Supreme Court ruling as they sought to tighten deadlines for mail-in ballots.

Pennsylvania is an election battleground state in the presidential election. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 but is trailing Democratic opponent Joe Biden in opinion polls this year.

In a Sept. 17 ruling, the state high court ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and various Democratic officials and candidates who had asked for the court to protect voting rights during the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted an increase in requests for mail-in ballots.

The Democrats also raised concerns about whether the U.S. Postal Service, led by a Trump ally, would be able to handle the surge of ballots in a timely manner.

Democrat Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, backed a three-day extension.

Without court intervention, the previous mail-in ballot system, introduced last year, would “unquestionably fail under the strain of COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election, resulting in the disenfranchisement of voters,” the state court concluded.

Trump has attacked the integrity of mail-in voting, a regular part of American elections that is being used even more this year because of the pandemic. Trump has made unsubstantiated claims that mail-in ballots are especially vulnerable to fraud and suggested without evidence that their widespread use would lead to a “rigged election.”

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler