(The Center Square) – A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a Pennsylvania state senator won reelection on Nov. 3, tossing out a last-minute challenge from his opponent that delayed his seating in the chamber last week.
Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Monroeville, defeated Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli in the state’s 45th district by just 69 votes. Ziccarelli argued that Brewster only won because Allegheny County included more than 300 undated ballots in the final count, despite a decision in the Westmoreland County part of the district to toss such votes.
The state Supreme Court said in November undated ballots counted toward the final tally. Some 61 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties followed this guidance, despite concerns from Republicans that it contradicted state election code.
"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,” U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas 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.”
The decision signifies an apparent win for state Democrats still fuming after top ranking Republican Sen. Jake Corman refused to seat Brewster last week pending Ziccarelli’s legal challenge. The minority party said the move set a dangerous precedent that disenfranchised thousands of voters and was akin to “stealing the election” on par with rhetoric from President Donald Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh, congratulated Brewster in a statement Tuesday where he described democracy as “the real winner.”
“He’s been declared the winner more times and in more ways than should be necessary, but I believe that the matter is now unequivocally settled,” he said. “I look forward to Senator Brewster’s swearing in ceremony and watching him take the oath of office I know he will faithfully abide every day of his service.”
Democrats across the state echoed Costa’s sentiments, from Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia.
“Another win for the rule of law and our democracy,” Shapiro tweeted Tuesday. “Another failed attempt to disenfranchise PA voters. Another judge rejects @PAGOP's specious arguments.”
“Today’s ruling is certainly in order with the facts of the case,” Hughes said. “Senator Brewster won the popular vote, all state and federal court proceedings, and was certified by the Pennsylvania Secretary of State. The Senate Republicans need to accept these facts and swear Senator Brewster in immediately. They must accept the will of the voters, and the rule of law, and give the residents of the 45th Senatorial District the Senator they chose. Seat Jim Brewster now.”
Corman said the Senate will convene Wednesday to seat Brewster, though he didn't stray from his belief that Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar "was premature in certifying the election," given the "obvious defect" in the way ballots were counted.
“In this case, there was no dispute of facts," he said. "There were no allegations of fraud. Instead, we had voters in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties who made the same mistake on their mail-in ballots being treated differently."
Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, welcomed Brewster back to the chamber in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
“Last week, we said we wanted to resolve this the right way not the fast way," she said. "We have done that."
Ward said Friday that a split decision from the state court to count undated ballots – in violation of state law – for the Nov. 3 election was inconsistent, at best.
“If the law states that an action is illegal, it makes little sense that the Court would ignore that fact and decide not to apply the law just this one time,” she said.
Corman released his own statement Friday defending his decision to block Brewster’s swearing-in until the court ruled on the issue. He, too, blasted Boockvar and the “Democratic-leaning state Supreme Court” for undermining election law that tossed ballots without valid dates.
“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,” he said. "If the federal court rules, as we believe, that the ballots should not count then we will seat Mrs. Ziccarelli immediately and if they rule ballots should count we will seat Senator Brewster immediately.”
He said no subsequent appeal would delay the seating, “although it could result in further action in the future if the district court decision is not upheld.”
“What the last few days have shown us is that it’s our responsibility to restore confidence in the institutions such as the Senate,” he said. “This isn’t accomplished by political theatre meant to appeal to base politics or people on Twitter.”