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HARRISBURG — A federal judge has upheld the validity of hundreds of undated mail ballots cast in Allegheny County, ruling in favor of a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Senate whose win was previously certified by the state.
GOP leaders in the chamber last week refused to seat the winner, incumbent Jim Brewster, during a chaotic session that also saw the temporary removal of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
Republican candidate Nicole Ziccarelli filed the federal suit seeking to throw out 2,349 mail ballots that Allegheny County election officials counted even though they did not have a handwritten date. Just over 300 of those votes were cast in Ziccarelli’s race against Brewster, giving him a 69 vote lead.
She lost a similar case that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
In a 14-page ruling, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan said his court was “bound by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of this state law — which directly applies to the very ballots at issue here.”
“Contrary to Ms. Ziccarelli’s reading, the court finds that the Supreme Court expressly held that the undated ballots at issue remain valid ballots that are properly counted under state law,” Ranjan wrote. “Thus, because Ms. Ziccarelli’s federal constitutional claims all depend on the invalidity of the ballots under state law, those claims necessarily fail on the merits.”
Ranjan also rejected Ziccarelli’s argument that her due process and equal protection rights were violated because election officials in neighboring Westmoreland County — sections of which fall within the 45th senatorial district — did not count undated ballots.
Democrats in the state Senate called on Republican leaders to seat Brewster immediately.
“Today we can celebrate Jim Brewster’s win, but the real winner is democracy,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said in a statement. “Our judicial system at both the state and federal level upheld the decision of our voters, just as it was intended to.”
Republican leadership did not immediately put out a statement on the ruling.
But on Friday, the chamber’s top GOP lawmaker, Jake Corman of Centre County, signaled that if the judge didn’t rule on the case’s merits — finding, instead, it wasn’t a federal matter — the Senate could intervene and decide who to seat.
“It is our plan to let the election case in front of the federal district court play out and ultimately seat whoever is successful in that process as long as the findings from the court are to the merit of the challenge and the validity of the disputed ballots and not based on the lack of jurisdiction of the federal courts,” Corman said in a statement.
While Corman has conceded he doesn’t “have any evidence of misdoing” during the November election, he and other prominent Republicans have repeatedly criticized the Wolf administration and state Supreme Court.
The latter, he and others have argued, overstepped by issuing rulings that accommodated voters during the pandemic. In the case of Brewster and Ziccarelli, three state justices found the lack of a date to be a technical violation of state law, while a fourth said the requirement may not have been clear to voters.
This story will be updated.