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Could election challenges by Trump succeed?

Jon Shelton
November 6, 2020

Donald Trump has intensified his claims of voter fraud and vowed to challenge the results of the presidential election in the Supreme Court. That's a long shot — but Trump has built himself a loyal bench.

Donald Trump looking down
Image: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

As the results continue to be tabulated, Donald Trump and his team have launched a legal assault on the results of the 2020 US presidential election, claiming massive voter fraud without offering evidence of malfeasance. The president has stood before cameras twice since election night, both times claiming that he won and railing against "illegal" votes — though he gave no specifics.

Trump has vowed to take his fight to the US Supreme Court. However, a case cannot simply be taken to the Supreme Court, but must make its way through state courts and lower federal courts before the highest court in the land decides whether to hear it.

According to The Associated Press news agency, the Trump campaign and various Republican groups filed more than 300 legal challenges across the US before the election to restrict the counting of ballots, and several have been filed in the days since. Three cases related to voting made it to the Supreme Court in the two weeks prior to the election — in part because of challenges to election procedures, such as an in increase in absentee and mail-in voting, put in place by states because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Read more: Greta Thunberg mocks Trump's election fraud claims

In late October, the Supreme Court found that a federal district court did not have the power to extend the deadline for receipt of ballots sent on or before Election Day in Wisconsin, ruling that that authority resided with the state government — and votes must be in by November 3. The court allowed a ban on curbside voting in Alabama, where it had previously been offered as an accommodation for voters with disabilities.

The Supreme Court split 4-4 on a decision regarding a three-day extension for ballots in Pennsylvania, allowing the original ruling to remain in place. Trump called the court's failure to take up the Republicans' case "terrible." It is unclear whether the court will review the case after the election. The Trump campaign has signed onto the suit.

In a more decisive decision, the Supreme Court allowed ballots submitted on or before Election Day to be received until November 12 in North Carolina as part of the state's pandemic measures. 

Trump supporters wave flags in front of the Clark County Election Department
Trump's supporters have mobbed vote-counting centers, hoping to halt the talliesImage: Jae C. Hong/AP Photo/picture alliance

Where things stand 

Trump has appointed three Supreme Court appointees: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who was expeditiously installed in October to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it's unclear whether any of his legal challenges has a chance of making it as far as the country's top court.

To date, Trump and the Republicans have filed challenges seeking to limit access to voting ahead of the election and stop the count of legally cast mail-in ballots after November 3. They are now focusing on Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania for legal challenges. 

The Republicans have announced their intent to file for recounts in the states of Wisconsin and Michigan and are threatening the same in Pennsylvania. Here is a brief list of the status of some lawsuits filed thus far:

  • In Pennsylvania, Republicans sued for "meaningful" poll observer access, the striking down of state ballot deadlines and the rejection of ballots on other technicalities. A state appeals court rejected most of the claims, but ruled to allow observers within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of the count provided that other pandemic protection measures are followed. 
  • In Wisconsin, the Trump campaign has signaled its intent to file for a recount.
  • In Michigan, suits to stop counting votes until poll watchers received expanded access were rejected by state courts. The Trump campaign has signaled its intent to file for a recount. 
  • In Nevada, the Trump campaign sued for "meaningful" poll observer access, access to signature-matching software and the rejection of "illegal ballots." The Nevada Supreme Court has rejected the claims for lacking "evidentiary support." 
  • In Georgia, the Trump campaign filed a suit claiming that 53 late-arriving ballots had not been segregated from those received by Election Day. A state court dismissed the case as having "no evidence."
Deadline for mail-in ballots in various US states


High among Trump's grievances is his insistence that mail-in ballots are invalid. For months ahead of the election, the president encouraged supporters to vote in person and not by mail. Democrats took the opposite tack, telling voters to cast ballots early to ensure they would be counted.

Read more: Debunking election misinformation online

The thrust of Trump's legal campaign is to halt the counting of votes before the mail-in and absentee ballots can be tallied. Despite the president's Twitter demands to "STOP THE COUNT!" it's entirely normal to take several days to tabulate the votes. These ballots were legally cast before or on Election Day and, depending on state laws, can be counted for several days after the vote so long as they were postmarked by November 3.

Critics of the Republicans' impatience for results in states such as Georgia put the blame on state governments — frequently themselves Republican — that had refused to allow clerks to process and tabulate absentee, mail-in and early ballots before Election Day as officials had requested.

Read more: Who will win Arizona? It depends whom you ask

This led to a skewing of the count — with the president predictably ahead early in some states, only to be surpassed later when all votes (including in-person and mail-in) were tallied. Critics say Trump's legal challenges are a blatant attempt to rile up the Republican base and sow disinformation aimed at undermining confidence in the US electoral system.

"These attempts to subvert the democratic process are disgraceful," Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said on Wednesday, a day after the election.

Fact-check: The truth on burned votes