Pa., GOP Again At Odds, This Time Over Ballot Signatures

Law360 (October 8, 2020, 11:31 PM EDT) -- President Donald Trump's reelection campaign and Pennsylvania's top election official are again fighting over whether state or federal courts should decide an election issue in the battleground state, this time focusing on voters' signatures on mail-in ballots.

Following the latest election-law challenge from the Trump campaign, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar has asked the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for guidance on whether the state election code requires mail-in ballots to be thrown out if the voter's signature doesn't match the signature on their registration. But in a response Wednesday, the campaign argued it has already asked a federal court in Pittsburgh to require signature matching and urged the justices to let that court decide.

"The secretary's application seeks yet another judicial re-writing of the election code by eliminating the requirement that absentee and mail-in ballot applications and voted ballots be verified according to the voter's signature," the campaign's brief said.

The campaign told the state Supreme Court that it had already asked the federal court to declare that the signature comparisons were legal, and that the Republican Party of Pennsylvania had already started training its poll watchers on how to challenge ballots based on signature mismatches during the precanvassing process.

"Secretary Boockvar thus asks this court to prohibit the very actions which the Trump campaign and RNC have alleged are lawful in the federal action. Secretary Boockvar's ex parte application is an attempted end run around this already-pending litigation," the campaign told the Supreme Court. "Should this court grant the relief sought in this litigation, the RPP will need to expend substantial new additional resources and effort on overhauling its [election day operations], training programs, and voter education programs to reflect the changes in Pennsylvania's election laws and election administration scheme."

The campaign said the election code clearly states that voters had to sign their ballots' outer envelopes, and that precanvassers had to determine whether the ballot was valid by "verifying the proof of identification" and "comparing information set forth on such application with the information contained on the applicant's permanent registration card." That comparison had to include the voter's signature, the campaign's brief to the Supreme Court said.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee had sued the state in federal court in June over aspects of the election such as the legality of drop boxes and disputed whether they were issues of state law or federal constitutional issues, but the case was paused until the state Supreme Court weighed in on how to interpret the state election code.

After the Supreme Court's Sept. 17 ruling allowing voting via drop boxes and extending the deadline for ballots to be received by election offices, the Trump campaign restarted its federal lawsuit with an amended complaint that targeted signature matching.

Earlier that month, Boockvar had issued guidance saying that ballots should not be rejected based solely on signature comparisons, after the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania complained that officials risked throwing out legitimate ballots by relying on comparisons of ballot and voter-registration signatures that could be made years apart.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that Boockvar's guidelines created an unequal standard for in-person voters whose signatures could still be compared to voter rolls.

Boockvar responded that there were other methods for verifying a mail-in voter's identity during the ballot application process, and asked U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan to abstain again while the state court interpreted the signature question under state law.

A representative for Boockvar declined to comment. The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The Pennsylvania Department of State and Boockvar are represented by Daniel T. Donovan, Susan Davies, Michael Glick, Sara Shaw Tatum, Madelyn Morris and Kristen Bokhan of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Daniel T. Brier, Donna A. Walsh and John B. Dempsey of Myers Brier & Kelly LLP, Timothy E. Gates and Kathleen M. Kotula of the State Department's Office of Chief Counsel, Kenneth L. Joel and M. Abbegael Giunta of the Governor's Office of General Counsel, and Josh Shapiro, Karen M. Romano, Keli M. Neary, Howard G. Hopkirk, Nicole Boland and Stephen Moniak of the Pennsylvania attorney general's office.

The Trump campaign and the RNC are represented by Ronald L. Hicks Jr., Jeremy A. Mercer and Russell D. Giancola of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, and Matthew Morgan and Justin R. Clark of Elections LLC.

The cases are Donald J. Trump for President Inc. et al. v. Boockvar et al., case number 2:20-cv-00966, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and In re: November 3, 2020 General Election, case number 149 MM 2020, before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

DONALD J. TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT, INC. et al v. BOOCKVAR et al


Case Number

2:20-cv-00966

Court

Pennsylvania Western

Nature of Suit

Civil Rights: Other

Judge

J. Nicholas Ranjan

Date Filed

June 29, 2020

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