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In Alabama, a Black man with Parkinson's disease and asthma asked a court to allow curbside voting but was turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Florida, 700,000 felons trying to regain their right to vote were hampered by five judges appointed by President Donald Trump. In Arkansas, three judges appointed by Republican presidents told elderly residents worried about COVID-19 exposure they could sign ballot initiatives through a window.
At the same time, arguments from Trump's lawyers have been shot down in several states, and the president was dealt two setbacks by the Supreme Court just before Election Day in cases that expanded absentee voting – a procedure he has criticized without evidence as the source of ballot fraud.
Those outcomes are part of a record-setting number of lawsuits that have been filed this year, with even more expected to come after polls close Tuesday. In all, more than 230 election-related federal lawsuits were filed from Jan. 1 to Oct. 23, higher than any of the past three presidential election years during the same time period, a USA TODAY analysis of federal court data found.
The outcomes have been mixed. Voting rights advocates won numerous COVID-19-related decisions that expanded access to absentee ballots, extended deadlines to count those ballots and allowed blind and disabled voters to cast their ballots electronically or by phone. Trump’s lawyers and his supporters have also scored key victories, locking in Election Day deadlines for absentee voting, limiting the number of ballot drop boxes and blocking other measures to ease voting.
The flood of litigation has been powered by the coronavirus pandemic that forced states to adjust their normal voting protocols.
Lawyers representing Trump, the Republican Party and conservative voters have warned – with little evidence – of voter fraud as they’ve urged courts to limit voter registration efforts, block universal mail-in voting and other pandemic-related changes.
"The electoral process cannot function properly if it lacks integrity and results in chaos," Trump’s attorneys wrote in a Nevada lawsuit.
Supporters of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the Democratic Party, civil rights groups and organizations representing vulnerable communities have fought back. They have urged judges to eliminate requirements that witnesses sign absentee ballots and approve postage-free envelopes for absentee ballots.
"We have seen a level of voter suppression that has really been unprecedented in its breadth, in its depth, in its innovation, in its geographic reach," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
USA TODAY's review of hundreds of lawsuits that were filed or had significant rulings in 2020 found that courts have already made pivotal decisions on who can vote, how they vote and the process used to count their votes. USA TODAY also reviewed election lawsuit data compiled and maintained by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project and the Brennan Center for Justice.
The analysis found that Trump has already been assisted by the legions of federal court judges he appointed during his first term in office. Working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the conservative Federalist Society legal group, the president has installed more than a quarter of all federal judges.
The Supreme Court has played a significant role in election-related cases, issuing a series of decisions halting lower-court rulings that would have expanded voting access. This week’s confirmation of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, further cemented the court’s 6-3 conservative majority, giving Trump and Republicans an even more significant advantage heading into what is expected to be a post-Election Day legal frenzy.
"We saw a wave of judges ... issuing very careful rulings protecting voting rights and carefully crafting remedies so people can vote safely during the pandemic, and the Supreme Court issued rulings that just swept them away without any explanation," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York.
The lawsuits are a culmination of a decades-long trend that started with the infamous Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. The contest was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, a ruling that has resulted in a steady increase of election-related lawsuits ever since. Richard Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law professor who has tracked election-related lawsuits for three decades, said the 2018 midterm elections had set the latest record for election year lawsuits, but 2020 is on pace to set a new mark.
At times, the hyperpoliticized nature of the 2020 election cycle has contributed to lawsuits that often sound like an angry Twitter feed.
In Michigan, a Republican state candidate argued in court documents that sending absentee ballot requests to all voters would only help "the deep state." In Illinois, a county Republican Party accused the state's Democratic governor of implementing an emergency election system designed to minimize Republican ballots and "if the election still doesn’t turn out the way he wants it, to generate enough Democratic ballots after election day to sway the result."
Lawsuits initiated by Democrats and advocacy groups have accused Republican election officials of purposefully curtailing the vote for constituencies that don't support them. In Minnesota, several groups challenged a state law requiring a witness to sign absentee ballots, which they claim is discriminatory to African and Native Americans who tend to suffer from higher rates of preexisting conditions that make their communities more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Below is a look at the legal landscape across the nation. A handful of states, including Hawaii and Wyoming, avoided significant legal battles and are not listed.
Voters worried about exposing themselves to COVID-19 inside polling stations won a legal victory this summer when a judge ordered the state to make it easier to vote by mail and allow curbside voting.
That was a relief for the plaintiffs, including Howard Porter, a 70-year-old African American who has Parkinson's disease and asthma. He argued in court papers that he hadn't left his home since the pandemic started but can't vote absentee because the state requires a witness sign all absentee ballots, and Porter worries about exposing himself in that way.
"(So) many of my (ancestors) even died to vote," Porter said during a hearing. "And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past … that time."
In the wake of the ruling, election officials in Jefferson and Montgomery counties – home to the state's two largest cities, which both voted against Trump during the 2016 election – announced they would adopt curbside voting in time for November.
All those plans ended, however, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Alabama judge's ruling on Oct. 21 without explanation. In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor lamented the high court's decision, pointing out that even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended curbside voting to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The counties "are ready and willing to help vulnerable voters like Mr. Porter cast their ballots without unnecessarily risking infection from a deadly virus," Sotomayor wrote. "This Court should not stand in their way."
An Alaskan tribe sued the state government over a rule that required witness signatures on absentee ballots.
Residents of Arctic Village, a tiny Native American community of 150 members deep in the mountains in northern Alaska, went into a severe lockdown after some members contracted COVID-19 and returned to the village. Leaders closed down the village to all outsiders and issued strict orders that people not congregate with anybody outside their household.
"The Tribe is aware that COVID-19-related deaths among Native communities is highest among any demographic group in the United States," its lawyers wrote. "The Tribe has taken a series of drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus that, if not contained, has the potential to decimate the Arctic Village's entire population."
State election leaders in this Republican-controlled state argued that the village made its request too late – the lawsuit was filed in September – and that it would create too much confusion for voters to alter absentee ballot rules so close to the November election. The judge disagreed, arguing that the state could easily send out public notices of the change and that the health of Alaskans was more important than any last-minute inconveniences to the state.
Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby, who called the pandemic "a shifty beast," sided with the tribe, concluding that absentee ballots could risk the lives of voters and ordering the state to accept absentee ballots without a witness signature.
Perhaps no other state has seen more judicial rulings limiting voting rights than Arizona, a Republican-leaning state that has emerged as a possible win for Biden this year.
In one case, two advocacy groups persuaded a federal judge to extend the state's Oct. 3 voter registration deadline by nearly three weeks because of COVID-19 delays. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that ruling, ordering that voter registrations be shut down on Oct. 15. More than 7,000 voters registered during the extension period.
The appeals court struck down another ruling that would have allowed voters who accidentally mailed their absentee ballots without signing them an opportunity to fix the error up to five days after Election Day. The deadline is now Election Day.
One judge ruled that members of the Navajo Nation do not face unfair barriers to voting and struck down their request to extend the deadline to submit their absentee ballots. And another judge denied a request to waive the state's requirement that a witness be present when signing ballot initiatives, despite claims that the requirement puts medically compromised Arizonans at risk of exposing themselves to the coronavirus.
One of the rare legal victories for voting rights advocates came in Maricopa County, where Superior Court Judge Randall Warner allowed vulnerable voters to fill out their ballots by placing a video call to a county election official who fills out their ballot. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey objected to that practice, but Warner ruled that it was legal and necessary to protect disabled people and those in hospitals or nursing homes.
"Federal law does not allow Arizona to impose on a disabled voter the choice between voting and protecting their health," Warner wrote.
Arkansas voters have been shot down by federal judges in every attempt to expand their ability to vote in elections throughout 2020.
One federal judge struck down a request from voters to extend absentee ballot deadlines for the state’s May primary, arguing that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson had already done enough when he loosened rules to secure a ballot.
In another case, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a lower court ruling that would have eliminated the state’s requirement that all signatures gathered to get citizen petitions on the November ballot be witnessed and notarized. The lawsuit argues that such close contact exposes voters who are disabled, vulnerable to COVID-19 or living in nursing homes unable to sign those ballot initiatives without risking their lives.
The three appellate court judges – all appointed by Republican presidents – ruled that those voters could find creative ways to sign a ballot initiative without risking their health. In their opinion, the judges wrote that voters could be given "sterilized petitions" or sign them "through a window from the safety of their homes."
"No doubt, the in-person signature requirement imposes real burdens," the judges wrote. "We are just not persuaded it imposes severe burdens."
The League of Women Voters was also rejected when it filed a lawsuit requesting that voters whose signatures are deemed invalid are notified and given a chance to correct it. The organization argued that many factors may contribute to people signing their name differently on their ballot from the signature on file with the state.
"The rate of error only increases when signature matching is left to laypersons who have not received training in forensic document examination," the organization argued in its lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes disagreed. The judge concluded that as many 600 ballots may be thrown out in the November election because of signature mismatches – a "shockingly high" number, in his words – but he ruled that the League of Women Voters did not prove its members' ballots would be the ones rejected, so he dismissed their request.
A citizen trying to get an initiative on the ballot to expand the use of food trucks argued that the coronavirus pandemic limited his ability to gather enough signatures. A judge denied him, arguing that public health takes precedence over his initiative.
Yet a group of environmentalists making a similar request to get a recycling initiative on the ballot were given a 2½-month extension to collect enough signatures. And a group of Native American tribes pushing a sports betting initiative was given 35 additional days to gather signatures.
The most controversial lawsuit, however, involves drop boxes that have been placed in several California counties by the state's Republican Party. Unlike the official drop boxes used throughout the country that are placed, monitored and collected by county election officials, the boxes in California are unofficial, managed entirely by GOP officials.
Xavier Becerra, the state’s Democratic attorney general, sued the Republican Party in state court, requesting that the party disclose the location of each drop box and the names, addresses and dates of birth of every voter who has used one. Republicans refused, arguing that the boxes were legal under the state’s “ballot harvesting” law that allows third parties to deliver mail-in ballots on behalf of voters. On Oct. 21, Superior Court Judge David Brown sided with the GOP, rejecting the attorney general’s request to investigate, but allowing the case to proceed.
In an email to The Associated Press, Becerra’s office wrote that they will continue pressing the legal case "to ensure that every voter who casts their ballot will have their voices heard."
The Republican Party had its own response.
"This is a thuggish voter intimidation and vote suppression tactic by our Democratic Attorney General and Secretary of State," said Hector Barajas, spokesman for the California Republican Party.
Candidates and supporters of citizen initiatives made multiple requests to be included on the ballot, arguing that they only fell short of the number of signatures needed because COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult – and irresponsible – to collect them.
One Senate candidate gathered 51% of the required signatures and another gathered 90%. Each of them won initial approval from judges.
"A candidate who still manages to collect at least one-half of the required valid number of signatures from an electorate absorbed within a global pandemic, has shown he or she enjoys enough public support to justify putting the candidate on a primary ballot," Denver District Court Judge Christopher Baumann said during a hearing in May.
In each case, the state Supreme Court overturned the judges. The court ruled that limitations on gathering signatures has been "one of the unfortunate impacts of the virus," but ultimately found that gathering enough signatures is a "strict" requirement of state law.
The legal battles in Connecticut have focused on the state’s decision to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. Several Republican candidates for office challenged the governor’s order because the state only allows people to vote absentee for a limited number of reasons.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher struck down the Republicans’ request, arguing that the governor was empowered to make changes to the process in the name of public health. The judge focused on one of the existing excuses to vote absentee listed in the state's constitution: "because of sickness."
"COVID-19 is the scourge of the earth," the judge wrote. "It is a sickness of a lethality and ubiquity unknown for a hundred years. So it can be said with some confidence that the executive branch has not so broadly interpreted the constitutional language as to make it meaningless."
Only two election-related lawsuits have been filed in Delaware.
In one case, the League of Women Voters of Delaware requested that the deadline to receive mail-in ballots be extended by 10 days. Nearly 3% of votes cast in the state’s July presidential primary arrived too late, the result of increased absentee voting this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and delays at the U.S. Postal Service. If that trend holds for the November election, the organization worries that thousands of votes will be thrown out.
"This disenfranchisement – which is all but guaranteed for some number of voters – is tantamount to depriving voters of access to the polls," the league wrote in court papers.
In another case, the Delaware Republican Party challenged a universal vote-by-mail plan passed by the state’s Democrat-run General Assembly to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Mirroring lawsuits filed in other states, the Delaware Republicans argued that such a dramatic increase in mail-in voting would throw the entire election into question because the vote-by-mail system "is rife with potential problems and pitfalls."
Judges denied both requests.
Florida is already infamous for its role in the 2000 election recount, which left the presidential election undecided for five weeks and launched a 20-year period of nonstop litigation that has grown year after year.
2020 has been no different, with judges deciding everything from voter registration deadlines to drop boxes to the order in which candidate names must appear on the ballot. But one case may end up being the most influential in terms of how many people get to vote in November.
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment allowing most felons to regain their right to vote. But the next year, the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a law forcing felons to repay all of their court fees, fines and restitution before regaining their right to vote.
Critics have called the law a modern-day poll tax. Supporters have said they’re simply carrying out the will of the voters.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state, upholding the law in September on a straight party-line vote. The six judges on the court who sided with Florida were appointed by Republican presidents, including five appointed by Trump. The four judges who opposed Florida were named by Democratic presidents.
"Because court costs and fees are legitimate parts of a criminal sentence – that is, part of the debt to society that felons must pay for their crimes – there is no basis to regard them as a tax," the appeals court ruled.
The end result is that 770,000 Floridians who could have voted in November must now repay every dollar they owe before regaining their right to vote. And in a state that was decided by 537 votes in 2000, and tiny fractions in every presidential election since, that decision could make all the difference.
Most lawsuits requesting expanded voting opportunities have been struck down by Trump-appointed judges in this Republican-dominated state.
One case saw a federal judge appointed by Obama order the state to extend the deadline to receive absentee ballots three days after Election Day. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which included two judges appointed by Trump, struck down that ruling, keeping the absentee ballot deadline in place.
In another case, a group requested that the state send absentee ballot applications in Spanish to Gwinnett County voters, since the Atlanta suburb is 22% Hispanic. U.S. District Judge William Ray seemed to agree, concluding that providing ballots in their native language was "reasonable" and "may very well be the best public policy." Still, the judge – a Trump appointee – denied the request on a technicality: county election officials are required by law to distribute Spanish-language election material, but the state, which distributed the ballots, was under no such requirement.
In a separate suit, the Democratic Party of Georgia requested wholesale changes, including more voting locations, poll workers and technical support to fix malfunctioning voting machines, after the state’s June primary led to people waiting up to eight hours in line to vote and voters again faced long lines at the start of early voting in the general election. The Democrats argued that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has overseen a methodical process of closing polling locations and limiting services that have led to "voters (and particularly minority voters) waiting in unconscionably long lines to exercise their right to vote."
U.S. District Judge Michael Brown – a Trump appointee – denied the request, concluding that the Democratic Party had "not shown long lines are certainly impending in November."
Idaho hasn’t seen much election litigation, but one of its cases had the distinction of being one of the few where the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with a written opinion.
The high court has delivered a handful of rulings that have limited access to voting so far, but most of its decisions have been issued with no explanation. But in July, the justices chimed in on a lawsuit filed by Reclaim Idaho, a group trying to get an initiative on the November ballot that would increase educational funding in the state.
Lower courts had sided with the group, ordering the state to either put the initiative on the ballot or grant the group more time to reach the 56,000 signatures it needed. The Supreme Court blocked those rulings because the High Court already saw conflicting orders around the country on the topic of ballot initiatives and indicated it would end up ruling on those conflicts sometime later.
"Since the onset of the pandemic, the Circuits have applied their conflicting frameworks to reach predictably contrary conclusions," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The Reclaim Idaho case was sent back to lower courts and is ongoing.
The Cook County Republican Party filed a lawsuit challenging Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker's emergency orders expanding absentee voting, arguing they would lead to widespread voter fraud.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dow – appointed by President George W. Bush – disagreed, ruling that the Republican Party's arguments came down to "unsupported speculation about potential criminal conduct."
Indiana voters filed several lawsuits to expand absentee voting. But each time, judges appointed by Republican presidents turned down those requests.
State law allows people to request absentee ballots only if they are over 65, disabled or have another documented reason to stay home. During the state’s June primary, the Indiana Election Commission allowed all voters to request absentee ballots because the state was under a stay-at-home order.
But the commission decided that in-person voting must return for the November election. A group of citizens challenged that ruling but were struck down by a Trump-appointed federal judge and denied again by a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals – all appointed by Republican presidents.
The appeals court recognized the "difficulties" Hoosiers may face voting in-person in a state that has repeatedly broken daily coronavirus infection records throughout October.
"But Indiana's absentee-voting laws are not to blame," the appeals court concluded. "It's the pandemic, not the State, that might affect Plaintiffs' determination to cast a ballot."
In a separate case where public interest groups tried to extend the deadline for the state to receive absentee ballots, a different panel of 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judges – all appointed by Republican presidents – was more blunt in denying the request.
"As long as the state allows voting in person, there is no constitutional right to vote by mail," they wrote.
The Republican Party was active in Iowa’s courts this year, winning victories that expanded in-person polling locations and limited absentee voting in the few Democratic strongholds in the Republican state.
In one case, a former Republican state senator asked a judge to expand the number of polling locations in Woodbury County from two to five, arguing that Republicans, and especially men, tend to vote in-person on Election Day and that the state’s emphasis on absentee voting would harm those voters. A judge agreed, granting the request.
In another series of cases, the Trump campaign and the Republican Party tried to prevent election officials in three Iowa counties – including two that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 – from sending absentee ballot applications that were prepopulated with the voters’ information. Lawyers for the GOP argued that doing so would open the possibility of voter fraud because election officials couldn't be certain if the applications they received back were signed by the actual voter.
Judges in all three cases agreed, ruling that the election process should be uniform throughout Iowa and that election officials must only send out blank absentee ballot applications. In Woodbury County, a judge also ordered the county to nullify the estimated 14,000 absentee ballot applications that had already been returned and contact each of those voters that they would need to complete a new, blank application themselves.
"While this certainly can create hardship with their ability to vote by absentee ballot, it will not prevent them from still being able to vote by absentee ballot or in-person," state District Court Judge Patrick Tott wrote.
A lawsuit filed by a group of Republican voters charged that in its efforts to ease mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state of Kentucky actually made it harder for people to vote in person.
The suit, filed in June ahead of the primary election, questioned the decision by election officials to have only one polling location in five of the most populous counties in the state. The plaintiffs argued that cramming so many people into one voting location would expose people to COVID-19, since social distancing will be difficult and voting machines may not be sanitized between each use.
The lawsuit also alleges that the move violates part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying singular polling locations will disproportionately hinder African American communities in Jefferson and Fayette counties, which hold roughly 60% of the commonwealth’s Black population.
U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson, who was appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, struck down the request, ruling that voters had expanded access to absentee voting this year and 15 days of early, in-person voting.
"While it may seem intuitive that, when it comes to polling places, more is better, that is not a call for this Court to make, unless we first find a constitutional or statutory violation," Simpson wrote.
Several groups filed a lawsuit requesting that Louisiana add more early voting days to reduce congestion at the polls.
During a September court hearing held over a Zoom video call, the state called as one of its witnesses a doctor who expressed skepticism over the severity and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic in Louisiana, according to court documents. Philip Barie, a professor of surgery and public health, claimed that the number of COVID-19 cases may be "gross overestimates" and downplayed the risk of in-person voting to Louisiana voters.
"But, when asked about his personal COVID-19 risk tolerance, he was far less cavalier," U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick later wrote. "Barie testified that if he had close contact with a person infected with COVID-19, he would quarantine and would not vote in person (this would be an option for Dr. Barie, since he lives in New York City, which has implemented universal vote by mail due to the Virus)."
After that hearing, the judge ordered that early voting be extended from seven days to 10 days, a rare win for Louisiana voters who have struggled to expand voting options even as their coronavirus infections have skyrocketed throughout September and October.
In a separate case, several advocacy groups tried to expand absentee voting to a broader range of people, including a Black woman who suffers from asthma, according to court records. Her diagnosis was "environmentally induced" by pollutants near her home in Baton Rouge, which is part of a region known as "Cancer Alley" because of the high number of severe illnesses suffered by people living near chemical plants. Those residents are now disproportionately dying from COVID-19.
A judge rejected the request, arguing that Louisiana’s election laws are constitutional.
A group of blind voters won a victory when it forced the state into providing an absentee voting system that they could use.
The group argued that they can’t vote in person during a pandemic because blind people rely on carpools and public transportation to travel, exposing them to others with the virus, and navigating a polling location would force them to touch many surfaces to go through the line and fill in their ballot.
The state’s paper-based absentee voting system is no help either. The group requested that Maine follow the lead of other states by allowing them to use screen reader and ballot-marking software that allows blind people to mark their picks and sign their ballots electronically.
"Plaintiffs have been denied that right in violation of federal and state laws," the lawsuit read.
On Oct. 2, one month before Election Day, the state announced it would create a new online service that allows blind voters to use assistive technology to cast their votes from home.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously listed the resolution of a court case in Maine and several court rulings in Arizona. The state is handled by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Independent and third-party candidates filed several lawsuits requesting that the state reduce the number of signatures required to get on the ballot.
"The prime venues for collection of petition signatures historically have been large gatherings, such as fairs, festivals and sporting events, during warm weather months. Since March, all such events have been cancelled in Maryland," wrote lawyers representing candidates for the Green Party and Libertarian Party.
The lawsuits led to settlement agreements where the state lowered the required signatures from 10,000 to 5,000.
In a rare case of bipartisan litigation, two Democrats and one Republican candidate for Congress requested that the state make it easier for candidates to gather signatures to get their names on the primary and general election ballots.
"These candidates simply do not have the ability to collect the required numbers of signatures from voters unable to leave their homes and advised to limit contact with others," their lawyers wrote.
A judge agreed, ordering the state to reduce the number of signatures required by 50%, allowing candidates to submit electronic signatures supporting their candidacy and extending the deadline to submit all signatures.
Voters with "print disabilities" also scored a victory when a lawsuit they filed led to an agreement with the state that expanded their access to vote. The plaintiffs included people who are blind, have low vision or suffer from mobility or dexterity problems that make it impossible for them to read, write, hold or manipulate paper documents.
Under the agreement, the state will allow the voters to request a ballot and cast their vote by email using existing technology that assists the visually impaired.
After the National Federation for the Blind filed a lawsuit claiming its members could not fill out paper absentee ballots on their own, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain ordered the state to provide them with a manner to fill out their ballots using "screen reader technology" that is commonly used for other kinds of reading.
Several groups filed challenges to the state's deadline to receive absentee ballots by 8 p.m. on Election Day. The groups argued that COVID-19 restrictions coupled with reported delays in the U.S. Post Office could lead to thousands of ballots being thrown out for arriving late. They cited the fact that at least 6,405 absentee ballot arrived too late during the August primary, and Trump won the 2016 election by 10,704 votes.
A state Court of Appeals panel rejected those requests, arguing that the state has made enough accommodations for absentee voters.
"When choosing to submit an absentee ballot by mail, one assumes the risk that the ballot will not arrive by the deadline (any deadline), or even arrive at all," the judges wrote.
With Minnesota moving to more mail-in voting, multiple lawsuits requested the state extend the Election Day deadline to receive absentee ballots and to eliminate the requirement that a witness sign each absentee ballot.
The challenges were filed by elderly residents worried about bringing an infected person into their home and college students studying in other states worried about their ballots arriving on time. One lawsuit noted that 40% of Minnesotans over 65 live alone and that Black and Indigenous voters are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 because of their underlying conditions.
The Republican Party tried to intervene in one of the cases to block any changes, but a judge denied them and accepted a settlement agreement that granted most of the requests.
Under the deal finalized in July, absentee ballots were to be accepted if they were postmarked by Election Day and received by election officials within a week, and ballots would no longer require a witness signature.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled Thursday that the agreement violated the U.S. Constitution because the secretary of state's acceptance of the agreement "extended the receipt of ballots without legislative authorization."
"Simply put, the Secretary has no power to override the Minnesota Legislature," which enacted the Election Day deadline for receiving ballots, the court ruled.
The three-judge panel sent the case back to the district court with instructions to issue a preliminary injunction requiring compliance with the original deadline. Ballots received after Election Day are to be set aside and preserved, the ruling said.
The ruling acknowledged that the nearly last-minute injunction "may create harm in terms of voter confusion." However, the court said, "inevitable post-election challenges to the counting of invalid ballots if no injunction is granted is even more problematic since it would give voters no opportunity to adjust their mailing time or to deliver their mail-in ballots on Election Day to obviate their risk."
Another lawsuit filed in Minnesota is challenging the requirement that people wear masks in polling locations. The nonpartisan Minnesota Voters Alliance argued that state law makes it a crime to wear a mask in public, but the state is requiring masks at voting locations, forcing people to violate one law or another in order to vote.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz rejected that argument, writing that the state’s ban on masks was first enacted in 1923 to limit the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and was "clearly" designed to prevent people from purposefully concealing their identity. Wearing a mask in the midst of a global pandemic, the judge ruled, does not violate that law.
"The statute makes it unlawful to wear disguises," the judge wrote.
Voting absentee has never been easy in Mississippi, and civil rights groups say that's by design.
"Mississippi has some of the most restrictive burdens on absentee voting in the nation that run afoul of the constitution and have a particularly stark impact on Black voters," said Jennifer Nwachukwu, attorney at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.
Many states allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot, but in Mississippi, voters have to fall into a list of "excuses" to do so. One of the allowable reasons is for a "temporary or permanent physical disability," but judges and legislators have made clear that exception does mean everyone can use the COVID-19 pandemic as reason to vote absentee.
The Republican-controlled Legislature recently amended the law to state that a "temporary physical disability" includes any voter who is "under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19 during the year 2020 or is caring for a dependent who is under a physician-imposed quarantine due to COVID-19." And last month, the Mississippi Supreme Court dismissed a request that people with underlying medical conditions be allowed to vote absentee.
"Having a preexisting condition that puts a voter at a higher risk does not automatically create a temporary disability for absentee-voting purposes," the court ruled.
Three key lawsuits significantly altered the way Montanans vote in November.
In one case, a group of Native American tribes requested that a judge strike down a state law that limits the number of ballots that one person can deliver on behalf of others. The groups argued their members live in isolated areas with high levels of poverty, making a trip to a polling station or even a mailbox can be incredibly difficult.
State District Court Judge Jessica Fehr agreed, ruling that the state law created too large a burden on Native American voters.
"The questions presented cannot be viewed through the lens of our own upbringings or own life experiences, but through the lens of the cold, hard data that was presented at trial about the clear limitations Native American communities in Montana face," Fehr wrote.
In another case filed by the Democratic Party, a judge extended the Election Day deadline for absentee ballots, allowing all votes postmarked by Election Day to be counted.
And in a third case, the Trump campaign and the Republican Party requested that a judge block Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s order allowing for universal mail-in voting. The GOP argued that the order was a "brazen power grab" that opens the election to "fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting."
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen – an Obama appointee – called the Republicans' claims "a fiction."
"When pressed during the hearing in this matter, the Plaintiffs were compelled to concede that they cannot point to a single instance of voter fraud in Montana in any election during the last 20 years," Christensen wrote.
The Trump campaign filed a lawsuit challenging a law passed by the state’s Democratic legislature and signed into law by the Democratic governor that expands absentee voting in the November election.
Trump's attorneys argued that the changes were rushed into law and would lead to "chaos" in election offices. U.S. District Judge James Mahan – appointed by President George W. Bush – struck down the lawsuit, ruling that the Trump campaign did not have standing to challenge the state law.
"The Trump campaign does not represent Nevada voters," Mahan wrote. "The Trump campaign represents only Donald J. Trump and his 'electoral and political goals' of reelection."
Similar lawsuits were filed by Sharron Angle, a Republican who failed in her 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, and a group of citizens who argued that an all-mail election would lead to the collapse of the state and the nation's "republican form of government."
A judge struck down each lawsuit, ruling that protecting the health of citizens was paramount in the midst of the coronavirus.
The Trump campaign and the Republican Party scored a win in the Granite State when a judge refused to extend the Election Day deadline for absentee ballots.
A teacher’s union filed a lawsuit challenging the election system implemented by the state’s Republican governor and Democratic legislature. The union argued that the 5 p.m. Election Day deadline and the requirement that a witness sign all absentee ballots posed a challenge to its members, many of whom are older and at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Superior Court Judge William Delker struck down those requests, ruling that the state has already taken steps to make it easier to vote absentee this year and that witness signature requirements are needed to ensure the validity of each ballot. As for the Election Day deadline, Delker wrote that: “Voters have ample time to request, complete, and return their registrations and/or ballots prior to the election.”
The Trump campaign and local Republicans filed several lawsuits challenging the decision by New Jersey’s Democratic governor and Democratic-led Legislature to transition to a mostly mail-in vote in November in the name of public health.
In its lawsuit, the campaign cited several instances of alleged voter fraud in New Jersey, including a case in Paterson where a campaign worker admitted to investigators that she stole ballots out of mailboxes. The lawsuit charged that those cases reveal the risks of absentee voting and would dilute the "legitimate votes of honest citizens."
U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp, an Obama appointee, disagreed, ruling that the Trump campaign did not show that the previous, isolated cases of fraud meant that widespread fraud in the November election was "inevitable."
In a separate lawsuit, a judge granted a request that voters be allowed an opportunity to correct alleged mismatches between the signature on their absentee ballot and the signature on file with the state. The judge ordered all county election offices to notify those voters within 24 hours and give them time to verify their vote.
Twenty-seven of the 33 county clerks in Democratic-leaning New Mexico filed a lawsuit in March arguing that they couldn’t responsibly hold the state’s June primary election because so many of the regular polling stations were closed at the time because of the pandemic.
They requested the state move to all-mail voting. The chief justice of the state Supreme Court granted them a partial win, allowing them to send absentee ballot registrations to all voters but requiring them to maintain some polling locations open for in-person voting.
Disability Rights New York and other organizations and individuals filed a federal lawsuit seeking an order for the state to provide voting alternatives for disabled people who are fearful of voting in-person due to the coronavirus pandemic. The groups represent people living with blindness, low vision and physical disabilities such as paralysis.
"Defendants have discriminated against Plaintiffs because their service, program, or activity of absentee voting is inaccessible,” the lawsuit alleged.
Plaintiffs in the case include Rasheta Bunting, a registered voter in Brooklyn. She has low vision and does not have sufficient eyesight to read, mark and sign a standard print ballot without assistance, the court complaint said.
The two sides agreed to a settlement approved by a judge. The state will order county election boards to distribute "an accessible fillable PDF absentee ballot" that people with print disabilities can use to vote in the primary election. The parties later agree on a settlement to implement a similar program for the November election, where voters with print disabilities will receive a form "that is screen readable using common assistive technology."
In 2020, North Carolina election lawsuits featured challenges over witness requirements for voter signatures on absentee ballots, giving voters an opportunity to correct problems with their absentee ballots, and other issues.
But the most-watched case focused on whether voters would win extra time to have their absentee ballots received and counted.
The state’s election board agreed on Sept. 22 to accept mail-in votes postmarked by Nov. 3 that arrive before Nov. 12. That represents a six-day extension of the previous Nov. 6 deadline set by state lawmakers. The board also agreed to provide more opportunities to correct deficient absentee ballots and add absentee ballot drop-off locations.
The leaders of the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature asked a federal court judge to throw out the agreement. They argued that the board was administering the 2020 election “in an arbitrary and nonuniform manner.”
A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order that blocked state election officials from continuing to use the expanded voting plan. On Oct. 14, another judge denied the request for a preliminary injunction, arguing that it was too late to overhaul the voting process, "even in the face of what appear to be clear violations" of state election procedures. The ruling allowed the extended voting plan to continue.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the legal arguments in a proceeding that consolidated multiple cases. In the 12-3 ruling issued on Oct. 20, the appeals court refused to grant a preliminary injunction that would have overturned the extended voting plan.
Trump's election campaign asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse the appeals court decision. However, the high court denied the application Wednesday in a ruling that let the extended deadline stand.
Barrett did not participate in the ruling, the court said.
Self Advocacy Solutions, the League of Women Voters of North Dakota and a voter filed a constitutional challenge to the state’s system for verifying voter’s signatures on mail-in ballots. They alleged that the people who perform the comparisons aren’t trained properly.
“The State rejects hundreds of ballots cast by eligible North Dakota voters every election because of this unreliable ballot verification process, disproportionately disenfranchising voters prone to signature variability, specifically people with disabilities, non-native English speakers, and both young and elderly voters,” the court complaint said.
The lawsuit cited the experience of Maria Fallon Romo, a regular voter and resident of Grand Forks who has voted by mail and assumed her votes had been counted. They were not.
“Ms. Romo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997. As a result of her MS, it is difficult for her to write neatly or consistently,” the court complaint said. “Ms. Romo did not know that a signature on her ballot application that did not ‘correspond’ with the one provided on her ballot could invalidate her ballot, particularly without any notice to her beforehand.”
Both sides in the case agreed to a permanent injunction that requires county voting officials to notify voters if the signature on their ballots don’t match with the ones on file. The officials are required to first try calling the voter, then mailing them a notice, and giving them time to verify the signature before the state locks in final vote tallies six days after Election Day.
The A. Philip Randolph Institute of Ohio, an organization of African American trade union members, filed a federal court constitutional challenge to Ohio's one drop box per county for accepting completed absentee ballots. Citing an expected torrent of absentee votes during the coronavirus pandemic, the lawsuit said “absent immediate injunctive relief, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans stand to have their votes suppressed” because of the Ohio secretary of state’s decision “depriving Ohioans of a sufficient number of secure drop boxes."
The court ultimately issued a preliminary injunction in favor of the institute. "The Secretary has not advanced any legitimate reason to prohibit a county board of elections from utilizing off-site drop boxes and/or off-site delivery of ballots to staff,” the court ruled.
A split decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit of appeals stayed the injunction. Federal courts should not micromanage state election processes, the judges ruled, citing a 2016 federal court ruling.
A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee complaint filed in federal court challenged what it called "onerous and unnecessary" election law requirements for notarization and witnessing of ballots, photo IDs for voters, lack of prepaid postage for mail ballots and other rules that the committee said would make voting more difficult during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The court ruled that the state had created alternatives for voters to file absentee ballots without direct contact with others. Dismissing the case, the ruling also said "the state’s interests in preventing voter fraud and promoting certainty and confidence are sufficiently weighty to overcome any minor burden imposed upon Oklahoma voters during the pandemic."
A community organization called People Not Politicians sought a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to assign the redistricting maps for the state Senate, House and U.S. House of Representatives seats to an independent commission. The coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for the organization to get the signatures required to qualify for this year’s ballots. A federal district court granted an injunction that reduced the number of required signatures and extended the filing deadline.
The state sought a stay of the ruling. After the district court denied the application, the case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which imposed a stay and agreed to consider the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the stay made the case moot, because the Supreme Court would likely not decide the issue before the deadline to place the initiative on Oregon ballots.
Pennsylvania is among a few states that proved crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory. Widely viewed as a swing state again this year, Pennsylvania has been the site of multiple 2020 election law challenges, and a U.S. Supreme Court announcement six days before Election Day in a closely watched case.
The lawsuit features Democratic Party officials’ challenges to several provisions of state election laws. They sought rulings on whether election boards may establish drop boxes to receive completed ballots, whether the deadline for receiving mail ballots by 8 p.m. on Election Day could be changed during the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Postal System delivery problems and other issues.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that county election boards could receive mail ballots at drop boxes and other locations other than the boards’ main offices. Citing USPS delivery problems and the crush of voters using mail ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, the court also ruled that election boards could accept mail ballots by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6, a three-day extension from the deadline set by state lawmakers. The court denied an application for a stay filed by state Republican officials.
The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on whether to consider two applications for stays of the decision. That let the lower court ruling stand. Pennsylvania Republicans returned to the U.S. Supreme Court late last week with an application for expedited consideration of a full review by the nation's highest court.
The court denied the motion on Wednesday without Barrett taking part. Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, wrote that there was insufficient time to decide the issue before Election Day.
Alito, referring to the state court's decision to alter the mail ballot deadline set by the state Legislature, wrote that the issue "has national importance, and there is a strong likelihood that the State Supreme Court decision violates the Federal Constitution."
Alito left the door open to further action by the high court as it continues to weigh a full review of the matter. He raised the possibility that the court could order Pennsylvania ballots received after Election Day be segregated from other ballots for further consideration.
Government watchdog Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and individual voters filed a constitutional challenge to the state requirement that voters who submit absentee ballots must have them notarized or signed by two people who witnessed the voter’s signature. The lawsuit alleged the requirement was an undue burden on voters during the coronavirus pandemic.
Both sides in the case reached a consent agreement suspending enforcement of the law for the 2020 primary election and Nov. 3 national election. The Republican National Committee intervened and moved for a stay on the consent agreement. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit denied the motion, in part because no Rhode Island elected officials voiced public opposition to the settlement.
The Democratic National Committee, South Carolina voters and the state’s Democratic Party challenged the constitutionality of several election laws. The provisions restrict mail voting in some cases by age, require a witness signature on ballot envelopes, require proper postage for mail ballots, limit who can help a voter return a mail ballot and reject ballots received after 7 p.m. on Election Day.
The parties reached a settlement on the postage issue. The district court granted a motion for a preliminary injunction that enjoined the state from enforcing the witness signature policy for the 2020 election but denied relief on other issues.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted in part an application for a stay of the ruling on Oct. 5. The action reimposed the witness signature requirement, but exempted ballots already filed or received within two days of the high court’s action.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that he agreed with the stay because decisions about safety and health should be left to politically accountable officials in the states.
“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,” Kavanaugh wrote. “By enjoining South Carolina’s witness requirement shortly before the election, the district court defied that principle and this court’s precedents.”
A Tennessee state court lawsuit challenged election laws that place restrictions on who is eligible to vote by absentee ballot.
The case was filed earlier this year on behalf of plaintiffs who are immunocompromised or who have other ailments that could make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The court granted an injunction that temporarily required the state to provide absentee ballots to any eligible Tennessee voter who applies to vote by mail due to concern about contracting or transmitting the disease.
The Supreme Court of Tennessee said the ruling went too far. Ruling in August, the court said that only people who have special vulnerability to COVID-19 or who provide care for those with that vulnerability should qualify for absentee ballots.
Overturning the lower court's injunction, the state Supreme Court ruled that the "state’s interests in the efficacy and integrity of the election process are sufficient to justify the moderate burden placed on the right to vote of those" who don't have particular vulnerability to the coronavirus.
State or federal courts in the Lone Star State handled more than 20 election-related legal challenges during 2020.
One case alleged that Gov. Greg Abbott's one-per-county limit on ballot drop-off locations would "unreasonably burden" citizens' ability to vote and force them to "risk exposure to COVID-19."
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman, who was nominated to the federal bench by Obama, ruled in favor of a preliminary injunction. The public interest would be best served by “ensuring that qualified absentee voters, who comprise some of the most vulnerable citizens in Texas, can exercise their right to vote and have that vote counted.”
However, a three-judge panel of judges nominated to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit by Trump reversed Pitman’s ruling and upheld Abbott's order. "The district court vastly overstated the 'character and magnitude' of the burden allegedly placed on voting rights ... Indeed, one strains to see how it burdens voting at all," the judges ruled.
Leaving Abbot’s order in place “still gives Texas absentee voters many ways to cast their ballots in the November 3 election,” and “abridges no one’s right to vote,” the judges ruled.
Five voters, three of them present or former government officials, sued the Vermont secretary of state over a statewide election directive issued in July designed to send absentee ballots to all registered voters.
The lawsuit argued that the directive would inevitably send some ballots to people who have moved or died. People who are otherwise ineligible to vote may cast some of the ballots, the lawsuit also alleged.
U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford in September denied a motion for a preliminary injunction and dismissed the case on grounds that the people who sued lacked legal standing to represent all Vermonters. "Of all people likely to be confused about how to vote, these five plaintiffs must be last on the list," Crawford wrote.
A member of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia joined other disabled voters in challenging what they alleged was the state's failure to provide accessible vote-by-mail options to voters who are blind, have low vision or who suffer from impaired manual dexterity.
A partial settlement agreement reached in August requires the state to help voters like these by providing them with screen reader assisting technology that enables them to electronically receive and mare absentee ballots.
Washington is one of 14 states that sued Trump and the U.S. Postal Service over operational changes to mail processing and handling that slowed deliveries of regular mail, prescriptions and packages. State officials said the changes could slow applications for absentee ballots, as well as filings of the completed ballots.
In September, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction that blocked the Postal Service from continuing to use the changed workplace instructions. The injunction requires the Postal Service to use "extraordinary measures" to speed deliveries of election ballots.
The court is continuing to review the postal system's performance.
West Virginia’s Democratic Party challenged the state's decades-old system of deciding which party’s candidates are listed first on ballots, arguing the procedure gave an unfair edge to the first candidates listed. They submitted evidence from a political psychologist who calculated the advantage at 2.94%.
The system uses the results of the most recent presidential election to decide which candidate slate gets listed first for the succeeding four years. That means that Trump and other Republicans will be listed first.
"To award candidates from a favored political party an extra 2.94 percentage points in an election would be blatantly unconstitutional. To do the same through the allocation of ballot position without a weighty justification is also unconstitutional,” wrote U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers in an August ruling that permanently enjoined the West Virginia secretary of state’s office from using the protocol.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit subsequently granted a stay that enabled the state to continue using the system while a full appeal of the ruling continues.
A major U.S. Supreme Court ruling just over a week before Election Day will affect some voters who file absentee ballots in Wisconsin, a state Trump narrowly won in 2016 and that is viewed as a swing state again this year.
By a 5-3 vote, the high court let stand a lower appeals court decision that means absentee ballots must be received by local boards of election by 8 p.m. on Election Day. The decision dealt the final legal blow to an earlier federal district court ruling that the boards would have to accept absentee ballots as long as six days after the elections.
"Elections must end sometime, a single deadline supplies clear notice, and requiring ballots be in by election day puts all voters on the same footing," wrote Gorsuch, with a concurrence by Kavanaugh.
"The Constitution provides that state legislatures – not federal judges, not state judges, not state governors, not other state officials – bear primary responsibility for setting election rules," wrote Gorsuch.
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY; Jessie Balmert, Cincinnati Enquirer; Jon Campbell, USA TODAY Network New York; Jimmie Gates, The Clarion-Ledger; Clara Hendrickson, Detroit Free Press; John Kennedy, Gannett Florida Capital Bureau; Dylan Segelbaum, York Daily Record; Mariah Timms, The Tennessean; Ben Tobin, Louisville Courier Journal
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously listed several court rulings in Arizona. The state is handled by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election results for Biden, Trump could be decided by these lawsuits