For the second election cycle in a row, Pennsylvania’s 9 million voters will play a definitive role in choosing our next president. In 2016, Donald Trump eked out a victory in Pennsylvania by around 44,000 votes, or about 0.7 percent more than Hillary Clinton. The state’s 20 Electoral College votes were the vital piece to Trump’s eventual inside straight — Pennsylvania to Michigan to Wisconsin — which allowed him to win the White House while losing the popular vote.
Four years later, and matters for Mr. Trump have changed.
A pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly 230,000 people in the U.S. — and Trump’s incomprehensibly ham-fisted handling of same — hangs over the electorate like a pall of poison smoke. That pandemic has laid waste to much of the economy, stripping Trump of what was to be the hood ornament on his reelection campaign bus. Finally, he is not running against Clinton this time, and has been therefore unable to deploy the well-worn weapons of rhetorical misogyny that served him so effectively the last time.
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Polling in Pennsylvania throughout the campaign season has been steady and relatively tight. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has enjoyed a six-point lead, give or take, for months now. None of the dramatic events during the campaign season moved those numbers much at all, a fact that held true nationally as well as locally.
After the polling debacle of 2016, when pollsters misjudged the numbers coming out of Pennsylvania right along with Michigan and Wisconsin, people are properly loath to put any faith in polling margins that could very well be fiction once again. One thing all the election pros are sure of, however, is the importance of Pennsylvania to Trump’s hopes for victory.
Joe Biden would love to win Pennsylvania, but he does not have to win it; if he does, and the numbers in the other swing states hold true within a margin of around 5 points, there are very few ways for him to lose the national election. If Trump fails to win the state, on the other hand, his chances of winning the Electoral College overall crumble to about two percent. He and his people know this, and have moved swiftly into the dark places of electioneering like an oil spill on a rocky beach.
“President Trump’s campaign in the crucial battleground of Pennsylvania is pursuing a three-pronged strategy that would effectively suppress mail-in votes in the state, moving to stop the counting of absentee votes before Election Day, pushing to limit how late mail-in ballots can be accepted and intimidating Pennsylvanians trying to vote early,” reported The New York Times this morning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking election havoc for weeks in Pennsylvania, due in large part to the fact that this is the first year the state has offered widespread early voting to all of its voters. The infrastructure to handle such an influx is wobbly in its newness, Trump’s campaign and legal teams located a number of pressure points to potentially exploit, and the resulting legal arguments made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
That’s when the weird and creepy found a new gear.
Pennsylvania Republicans sought to keep state officials from counting absentee ballots that come in after the polls close on November 3; many states are allowing this, given the mayhem being wrought by COVID. Republicans in North Carolina sought a similar injunction. In a bang-bang pair of rulings yesterday that thrilled Democrats, the high court allowed for votes in both states to be counted up to three days after Election Day.
Newly minted Justice Barrett did not join in the deliberations or render a verdict in either case. According to the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office, she simply did not have enough time to get appropriately up to speed on the specific issues of the cases. As these decisions came down 5-3, with Justices Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas dissenting, Barrett’s presence would not have changed the outcome.
The weird and creepy came in the guise of Justice Alito, whose fury at people being able to have their votes count during a pandemic in an election the Republican could lose was, well, palpable. Two passages from his Pennsylvania dissent stand out.
Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Petitioner’s request for that relief, we have been informed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General that the Secretary of the Commonwealth issued guidance today directing county boards of elections to segregate ballots received between 8:00 p.m. on November 3, 2020, and 5:00 p.m. on November 6, 2020. Nothing in the Court’s order today precludes Petitioner from applying to this Court for relief if, for some reason, it is not satisfied with the Secretary’s guidance.
… and this:
Although the Court denies the motion to expedite, the petition for certiorari remains before us, and if it is granted, the case can then be decided under a shortened schedule. In addition, the Court’s denial of the motion to expedite is not a denial of a request for this Court to order that ballots received after election day be segregated so that if the State Supreme Court’s decision is ultimately overturned, a targeted remedy will be available.
… are deeply chilling indicators that the conservatives on this court have every intention of interfering with this election if they can, no matter how dangerous and destabilizing that interference could be. Justice Alito specifically states that ballots coming in after November 3 will be segregated from those arriving on time, and goes on to suggest that “a targeted remedy will be available” from the high court to throw those ballots out.
Note well: Alito is offering the Supreme Court to serve as a ballot-shredder for votes that were legally cast under the rules as they stand. He did not whisper this, but put his name to it in a public dissent, one that earned the signatures of Gorsuch and Thomas.
Justice Kavanaugh remained silent in both cases, but if a case that will decide the fate of the presidency comes to this court, one can assume Gorsuch, Thomas, Kavanaugh and Barrett will fall in line with a pro-Trump ruling, which leaves Chief Justice Roberts as the wild card, and God help us all.
On Monday, the same court ruled 5-3 against allowing Wisconsin to continue counting ballots that arrive after Election Day, essentially deciding in the polar opposite direction of the Pennsylvania and North Carolina rulings. As if this were not unnerving enough, Justice Kavanaugh vomited up a farcical Trump-clone argument about the perils of nonexistent voter fraud, further stating that the court’s decisions should make sure we know who wins on Election Night. News network executives everywhere must have been thrilled, but there was no basis in law for Kavanaugh’s nonsense. For Supreme Court nonsense, however, there is no remedy.
As Pennsylvania goes on Election Day, so goes the nation… but the court cases that may be brought by the Trump campaign could come from Wisconsin, North Carolina, any number of other states, or all of them combined. The only remedy for this is a landslide victory for Joe Biden. If the Electoral College is out of Trump’s reach by the time poll closures cross the Mississippi River, with Pennsylvania in Biden’s hip pocket, it will all be over but the shouting. If not…