The court ruled that the state’s election code only requires proof of an absentee voter’s identification through numbers taken from an approved form of ID, such as from a driver’s license or Social Security number.
This is a blow to the Trump campaign and Republicans, who had argued that the signature match was necessary to help them invalidate ballots — oops, sorry, to prevent fraud.
The basic principle upheld here is that a signature-matching requirement is unnecessary given those other safeguards, and that it opens the door to disenfranchisement by election officials making subjective matching determinations, ones driven by challenges expressly designed to disenfranchise (Republicans would never do that, needless to say).
Here’s why this makes a post-election disaster marginally less likely. First, it removes one way Republicans can invalidate mail ballots. GOP and Trump campaign lawyers have been fighting efforts by Democrats to relax the rules governing mail balloting to make it easier due to the pandemic.
We all know why Republicans have been doing this, because Trump has told us so: The president hopes to be ahead in the Election Day count, at which point he’d declare himself winner and declare uncounted mail ballots illegitimate, even as the lawyers try to delegitimize them in practice in the courts.
This ruling knocks out one way they might do this, in the state that might be the tipping point.
The second reason this could smooth the outcome is it means the count of absentee ballots will go more quickly. Pennsylvania is a problem here: Because election officials are prohibited from beginning to count mail ballots until Election Day, the count will likely drag on for many days after.
But without signature matching, that could be mitigated. “Pennsylvania lacks experience with anything like this volume of ballots, and this will make the counting go faster,” election law expert Rick Hasen told me.
This matters because the longer the count drags on, the more it might facilitate Trump’s scheme.
“The faster Pennsylvania can announce a presumptive winner, the less likely it is that Trump might try to parlay any premature claim of victory,” said Hasen, who doesn’t believe this ruling will be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court for complicated technical reasons.
A Joe Biden victory in Florida — a state where mail ballots can be counted well before Election Day and thus will give us a result on election night — would probably settle the election quickly, preempting a drawn-out struggle over the results in the courts and, possibly, in the streets.
But barring that, a fast win in Pennsylvania might also settle the matter pretty quickly. Trump also likely needs to win there; if Biden wins the state, he’ll almost certainly also be on track to winning Wisconsin and Michigan, cutting off Trump’s path to a win.
It’s of course possible that Biden could win Pennsylvania (where he leads by more than six points) by a large enough margin that none of these shenanigans end up being operative. But if it’s close, anything can happen.
Here’s the deal: We’re in a situation where every court decision and every small success at disarming ways that ballots might be invalidated could matter. Cumulatively all these factors could make a real difference.
Consider that in addition to this latest ruling, a deadlocked eight-justice U.S. Supreme Court recently let stand a Pennsylvania state supreme court ruling that mail ballots arriving for three days after Election Day must be counted. That, too, removes another way ballots might be invalidated.
It’s possible that once Amy Coney Barrett is seated on the Supreme Court, another challenge to that decision could succeed. But that probably won’t happen, also for complicated reasons.
And even if it does, enormous numbers of people are already voting early by mail in Pennsylvania. If that continues, it means fewer late-arriving ballots, which means invalidating them is less likely to be decisive.
In short: Every little thing done to facilitate voting, to remove ways of invalidating votes and to get as many people as possible to vote early, early, early will add up to something bigger. It’s all a reminder that we’ve got to try to put this election out of cheating distance for the president in every which way we can.