Category Archives: court decisions

Third Circuit Rules Undated mail ballots should be counted. Error was immaterial.

United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled to today, in Migliori et al v. Lehigh County Board of Elections–a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union–that 257 mail-in ballots that had been excluded from the 2021 general election because voters had not handwritten a date on the outer return envelope had to be counted. The full impact of the decision is unclear because the opinion is yet to be issued, but commentators expect it to have immediate impact. Most importantly, the decision stands at odds with state court decisions on the same issue.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“State law requires voters to sign and date the outside mailing envelope when they return their mail ballots, and state courts have held that the requirement means undated ballots must be rejected. But throwing out those votes violates the federal Civil Rights Act, the ACLU argued, because the date isn’t actually used in determining the legitimacy of a vote.

. . .

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed Friday, declaring the date requirement in state law is immaterial under the Civil Rights Act — meaning it can’t be used as a reason to reject ballots.”

Marian Schneider, senior voting rights policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says, “The potential implications of this ruling are significant, and we look forward to reviewing the court’s full opinion. One percent of Lehigh County’s mail and absentee voters in the 2021 general election submitted their ballots on time but forgot to handwrite the date on their return envelopes. In a statewide, high-turnout election, disqualifying those ballots could disenfranchise tens of thousands of otherwise eligible voters.”

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Intraparty Fights Taken to Court

Just a few days before Idaho’s May 17 primaries, Republicans took their internal fights to court.

“In the virtual hearing [last] Friday afternoon, Fourth District Court Judge Jason Scott heard arguments from intertwined Republican organizations — one suing the other, days before a primary election that pits establishment Republicans against ultra-conservative Republicans.

Scott ruled at the end of the two-hour hearing that the Bonneville County GOP had indeed overstepped its bounds by endorsing candidates in state-level primary, . . . saying it had determined those candidates were true Republicans.”

The county GOP’s actions violated party rules and election laws.

In the wake of the victory, Idaho GOP Chairman, is reported to have said, “‘While we’re pleased with the court’s decision, it’s regrettable that we were forced to take this action through the judiciary[.]’ . . . ‘At the end of the day, this is about party unity. The Republican Party needs to speak with one unified voice and the state party rules were put in place to ensure that happens. Rules and laws exist to help us navigate when we disagree.’”

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Judge Sutton’s new book

This essay focus on the election law implications of the new book by Jeffrey Sutton, Chief Judge of the Sixth Circuit. Bottom line: given all the challenges confronting the operation of the electoral process in the United States currently, now is the time for especially creative use of states as laboratories of democracy. While some of what’s being done to combat gerrymandering fits this description, there is much more experimentation with democratic procedures (all of which would be consistent with the basic federal constitutional guarantee of equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process) that could occur. (Derek’s post from a few days ago is along the same lines.)

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Election subversion and writs of mandamus

Election subversion is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the hottest topics in election law. It’s a term that can apply to many things, but I wanted to focus on one risk: some election administrator or board of elections refusing to certify the results of an election (or, worse, signing some alternative results apart from the results that come to the administrator or board through the ordinary canvassing and recount process).

It’s a topic that crops up time and again in the context of Electoral Count Act reform, as if it’s a novel problem. But this problem actually happens with some regularity (although it is by no means a common occurrence). The solution resides in a simple, longstanding mechanism that state courts routinely enforce: a writ of mandamus.

Continue reading Election subversion and writs of mandamus
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“Kansas Voter Suppression Law Blocked by Court”

Democracy Alerts

Federal court grants preliminary injunction in case challenging Kansas’s new voter suppression law. “The lawsuit, filed on behalf of VoteAmerica and Voter Participation Center in June, is challenging House Bill 2332, which restricts nonpartisan out-of-state organizations from providing mail-in ballot applications to registered voters and criminalizes the mailing of personalized advance ballot (similar to early voting in other states) applications.”

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Newsom recall lawsuit

Politico has a story on a new federal lawsuit raising a constitutional challenge to the procedures that California uses for its gubernatorial recall. The lawsuit follows upon a NY Times op-ed from last week by Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron Edlin, which argued that California’s procedures violate the one-person-one-vote doctrine of Reynolds v. Sims (and related precedents) because Gov. Newsom can receive more votes in the first (recall) phase of process than the leading candidate does in the second (replacement) phase of the process. Because only a plurality, and not a majority, is required in the second (replacement) phase, Newsom could fall just short of a majority in the first (recall) phase and then be replaced by a candidate whose plurality is far short of a majority and thus far lower than the number of votes in favor of retaining Newsom. As the op-ed observed, the problem could be solved by permitting Newsom to be one of the candidates eligible in the second (replacement) phase of the process, but given the way the California procedure is designed, if there is a majority of votes to recall Newsom in the first phase of the process, he’s ineligible from being a candidate in the second phase.

The California procedure does seem seriously flawed, to put it mildly. (I confess that I haven’t focused on it specifically before.) In general, I strongly favor majority-winner rather than plurality-winner elections. That point was the main theme of my book Presidential Elections and Majority Rule. It’s also the core of the claim that Congress should adopt a majority-winner requirement for congressional elections, as argued in the forthcoming article Requiring Majority Winners for Congressional Elections: Harnessing Federalism to Combat Extremism.

But it is one thing to say that majority-winner elections are desirable policy, and quite another to say that they are constitutionally mandated by virtue of the one-person-one-vote doctrine. Perhaps the particular California procedure is constitutionally flawed in a way that would not requiring judicial invalidation of all plurality-winner elections–although the idea that a candidate who is defeated in a first phase of a two-part electoral process is ineligible to be on the ballot in the second stage of the process was upheld in another case from California, involving the state’s “sore loser” law: Storer v. Brown, 415 U.S. 724 (1974). Thus, it’s not clear to me that the recall system is unconstitutional just because Newsom can’t compete in the second phase of the process after he’s disqualified in the first phase.

Both phases, considered separately, seem to comply with the basic idea of one-person-one-vote: each voter’s vote counts equally, first for determining whether Newsom is recalled and second for determining the winner of the plurality replacement election (for which Newsom is ineligible by virtue of being recalled). I could imagine the judicial activism of the Warren Court, which propagated the one-person-one-vote doctrine, invalidating the California recall system just because it offended the Court’s views of how democracy should work. But I’m not sure that the current Roberts Court will be as eager to apply the one-person-one-vote jurisprudence as aggressively as its Warren Court authors would.

Still, the case and issue seem interesting and important, and my own views on the specific constitutional question remain tentative as I’m just considering it for the first time. I very much welcome others weighing in on the merits of the pending suit.

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“Purcell in Pandemic”

I hope to highlight a few academic pieces this weekend. First up, a piece from Wilfred U. Codrington III forthcoming in the NYU Law Review on SSRN. From the opening of the abstract:

Given the major events in the 2020 election cycle, one might be forgiven for missing an important development: the Supreme Court’s repeated invocation of Purcell v. Gonzalez. The number of opinions from this past election cycle referencing the case that, among other things, urges courts to think twice before ruling in election challenges in the leadup to voting was quite astounding. For election law scholars and practitioners alike, 2020 will also be remembered as the cycle during which Purcell all but cemented its place in the pantheon of U.S. election-law principles. The year of “pandemic primaries” and general presidential election might also be called the year of Purcell.

Scholars have criticized the Court following its 2006 Purcell ruling. Despite their astute observations, however, it is unclear whether anyone could have foreseen the full extent of Purcell’s potency—or envisioned the damage it was capable of causing. A sad, even if understandable, attempt to cope with the harsh realities of election administration has become unmoored from its purpose and origins. Simple guidance for judicial decisionmaking on the eve of elections has been thoughtlessly applied—and tragically over-exploited—such that it has become part of the problem. Nothing proves this better than Purcell in the pandemic.

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USA Today analyzes potential impact of Brnovich

Behind a paywall. A snippet:

“At a time when more than a dozen conservative states have enacted new voting limitations and no evidence of substantial fraud has emerged from the 2020 presidential contest, election law experts say the lower standard could have an enormous impact on a wave of lawsuits that may be filed under the 1965 Voting Rights Act in coming years.”

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The list of COVID-19 election cases hits 325

Justin here. I’m tracking the litigation over election issues related to COVID-19 … and the list of cases just hit 325. (The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project also has a really useful sortable database of these cases, with more info. And Josh Douglas is separately tracking just the federal appeals, to see how they shake out.)

A reminder: the number in each state isn’t necessarily a good indication of the contentiousness of the issues: any individual case may be a good case or a shoddy one, or a “big” case or a “small” one — and some can be both at the same time. (The Eighth Circuit’s ruling Rick rightly called “outrageous” is probably a small case with respect to the number of ballots it will ultimately impact, and a giant case when it comes to the legal questions at issue). And some of these cases are essentially repeat claims of others. But overall, that’s still an awful lot of legal paper.

There’s an upside to some of this: with litigation brought in March, April, or May, as the pandemic reached the primaries, we got resolution of some pretty contentious issues in June, July, August, September. and October. That’s less to fight about in November. Which is good for everyone. There are some new cases, mostly asking for increasingly localized relief, and a few bomb-throwers that will be tossed out of court. Most of the cases are now done.

These are just the cases I know of — I’m sure I’m missing some. State court cases are particularly difficult to track. I think that five states have still been spared so far (Kansas, Nebraska, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming) … but if you know of a COVID-related election case I’m missing here, please let me know.

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“Judge: Minnesota 2nd District election to take place Nov. 3”


A federal judge ruled Friday that the election for Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District should proceed in November as originally scheduled, despite the recent death of a third-party candidate.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig asked the judge to require that the election be held in November instead of being delayed until February — after the Sept. 21 death of Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate Adam Weeks triggered a state law that led to the postponement.

The court’s order is here.

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