Trump's high-stakes swing-state legal blitz: Where his campaign says it's suing, and why

Jane C. Timm
·7 min read

President Donald Trump's campaign announced new lawsuits Wednesday in the swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan while demanding a recount in Wisconsin as the presidential race comes down to a handful of key states.

NBC News has projected that former Vice President Joe Biden has won in Michigan and that he is the apparent winner in Wisconsin, giving him a narrow but growing lead over Trump. But both remain shy of the 270 electors needed to win the White House, raising the stakes in the states that remain outstanding, particularly Pennsylvania, with its 20 Electoral College votes.

Trump, speaking from the White House around 2:30 a.m. ET Wednesday, made it clear that he'd fight in court to aid his re-election, falsely claiming that he had already won, even though no winner had been declared and millions of ballots were still being counted.

"This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we'll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don't want them to find any ballots at 4 in the morning and add them to the list, OK?" Trump said.

By that time, Republicans had already filed two suits in Pennsylvania and the Trump campaign had already lost most of an emergency appeal in Nevada. The campaign has since announced another suit in Michigan and additional suits in Pennsylvania, where the races are too close to call, according to NBC News.

Attorneys for the president are also asking to let him intervene in the Supreme Court case challenging the extension of mail ballot deadlines in Pennsylvania. The justices issued a split 4-4 ruling last month, effectively upholding a state court ruling that ballots received three days after the election could be counted. The Supreme Court is unlikely to act on the request immediately.

Marc Elias, Democrats' top election attorney, tweeted Wednesday that the Trump campaign's suits were "meritless," quipping in another tweet, "has anyone explained to Trump that filing lawsuits isn't the same as winning them?"

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who oversaw voting rights cases as deputy assistant attorney general during the Obama administration, described the suits as unserious efforts, focused on issues like where poll watchers can stand instead of objecting to a sizable number of ballots, in part because it's still too early in the counting for the latter type of lawsuit.

"If this is a legal war, he's arming up with water balloons," Levitt said, adding that litigation affects an election's outcome only when there's a razor-thin margin in a single state. "Don't expect the litigation to stop, but don't expect it to work, either," he said.

Here's a breakdown of where Trump and other Republicans are suing, and to what end.

In Pennsylvania, lawsuits to stop the vote count and allow GOP observers

The Trump campaign filed a number of legal motions Wednesday in Pennsylvania.

The president's campaign and the Republican National Committee filed a suit Wednesday evening asking a state appeals court to rule that the secretary of state erred in saying voters have until Nov. 12 to provide missing proof of identity for mail ballots. Republicans say the deadline should have been Nov. 9.

Earlier in the day, Justin Clark, Trump's deputy campaign manager, said in a statement that the campaign would bring two legal efforts in Pennsylvania: one to temporarily halt ballot tabulation "until there is meaningful transparency" and another to demand better access for Republican poll observers to watch the counting process.

They argued without evidence that the legal challenges were key to a speedy resolution of the election.

"Without our action, Pennsylvanians, and possibly all Americans, may be forced to wait yet another several days for the outcome of the election," Clark said in a statement.

Full results: See the latest numbers in Pennsylvania

The poll observer suit was promptly rejected by a state court, as a judge said that observers aren't there to audit ballots and that it appeared that the Philadelphia County Board of Elections was complying with state law. But the judge said he wouldn't discourage election officials from allowing observers to get closer to the canvassing tables if it can be done consistent with Covid-19 protocols.

The state's Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, condemned the legal moves.

"These attempts to subvert the democratic process are disgraceful," Wolf said in a statement.

In Michigan, a threat to sue to stop the vote count

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a statement Wednesday that the campaign would sue in the Michigan Court of Claims to stop ballot counting until it can have more "meaningful access" to observe ballot processing and counting.

NBC News projected Wednesday that Biden won Michigan, with 97 percent of the expected vote tallied.

Full results: See the latest numbers in Michigan

"Michigan's elections have been conducted transparently, with access provided for both political parties and the public, and using a robust system of checks and balances to ensure that all ballots are counted fairly and accurately," Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, said in a statement, adding that the state hadn't been served.

In Pennsylvania, a GOP lawsuit over handling of mail ballots

A Republican candidate for Congress, Kathy Barnette, sued in federal court Tuesday claiming that county officials in Montgomery County, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, illegally handled mail ballots ahead of Election Day.

The county said in a hearing Wednesday morning that its efforts had allowed 93 voters to fix mail ballot errors, such as a missing signature or a missing privacy sleeve. None of the ballots had been opened, and the county defended its processes as legal and transparent.

Pennsylvania doesn't allow pre-canvassing before Election Day, and it doesn't have a process for fixing spoiled mail ballots, so the Republican plaintiffs have argued that those ballots should be thrown out because other counties' voters weren't given the opportunity to fix errors.

The 93 ballots have been segregated and are under lock and key pending resolution of the litigation. National Democrats have moved to defend the state in this suit.

In Pennsylvania, a GOP challenge over provisional ballots

Five Republicans, including a candidate for the Pennsylvania House, Joseph Hamm, and Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who is up for re-election in the state's 16th Congressional District, sued Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar in state court over allowing voters with defective mail ballots to cast provisional ballots in person in an attempt to have their votes count.

The suit alleges that the state election code doesn't allow for mail ballots to be "cured" and that filing provisional ballots in person effectively does that.

National Democrats and the Trump campaign have moved to intervene on behalf of the state and the challengers, respectively.

In Nevada, a Trump appeal over signature matching software

The Nevada Supreme Court refused a last-ditch Trump campaign effort Monday night to halt mail ballot processing and the use of signature verification software in Clark County, allowing the county to continue processing ballots as planned on Election Day.

Full results: See the latest numbers in Nevada

The state Supreme Court seems unlikely to agree with the Trump effort, writing in its order Tuesday night that the "appellants have not demonstrated a sufficient likelihood of success to merit a stay or injunction." It also noted that the suit had failed in district court because it lacked "evidentiary support" and standing and that the appeal hadn't changed that.

Still, the case hasn't been dismissed, and expedited review was granted, with more briefs due Monday.

In Georgia, a suit about reminders

The state Republican Party and the Trump campaign have also sued in Georgia, asking a judge to remind election workers that under state law, late mail ballots — arriving after 7 p.m. on Election Day — are not to be counted. The suit claims that an election observer in Chatham County saw an election worker handle a late ballot in a way that might have mixed it with ballots that had arrived on time; there's no proof that it actually happened. The suit asks the state to secure late ballots, as well.

Georgia said Wednesday afternoon that it had about 185,000 ballots left to count. Counting will continue overnight and "perhaps" into Thursday morning, according to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.