Election 2020

Trump Legal Challenges More Bluster Than Substance

Experts say there’s little chance they could actually affect the results—but they could affect the nation.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Dozens of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump call for stopping the count of ballots in Pennsylvania at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Nov. 5.
Dozens of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump call for stopping the count of ballots in Pennsylvania at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Nov. 5. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign has filed a flurry of lawsuits in battleground states, raising fears that the protracted battle for the White House could be drawn out even further through the courts. But legal experts say that the cases filed in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are unlikely to have any material impact on the race. Rather, the cases appear to be an effort by the Trump campaign to muddy the waters about the integrity of the election. 

“These do not appear to be very serious challenges, there’s not a ton of evidence being submitted with these complaints,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voter advocacy organization.

On Thursday, a judge in Georgia dismissed a case filed against the Chatham County Board of Elections less than 24 hours after it was filed. In his decision, Judge James Bass said that there was “no evidence” that 53 absentee ballots had been mishandled, as the Trump campaign’s lawsuit alleged. 

U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign has filed a flurry of lawsuits in battleground states, raising fears that the protracted battle for the White House could be drawn out even further through the courts. But legal experts say that the cases filed in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are unlikely to have any material impact on the race. Rather, the cases appear to be an effort by the Trump campaign to muddy the waters about the integrity of the election. 

“These do not appear to be very serious challenges, there’s not a ton of evidence being submitted with these complaints,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voter advocacy organization.

On Thursday, a judge in Georgia dismissed a case filed against the Chatham County Board of Elections less than 24 hours after it was filed. In his decision, Judge James Bass said that there was “no evidence” that 53 absentee ballots had been mishandled, as the Trump campaign’s lawsuit alleged. 

In Michigan, a judge dismissed a request by the Trump campaign team to halt the counting of ballots, with the campaign alleging that Republicans hadn’t been granted full access to observe the vote tabulation process. 

“These lawsuits are tinkering on the edges claiming potentially minor infractions; nothing which would reverse any electoral college win for Biden,” wrote the legal scholar Rick Hasen on his Election Law Blog

The one case that could potentially have some legs is a Republican challenge to a decision made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that allows mail-in ballots received by 5 p.m. on Friday to be counted, so long as the postmark indicates they were sent by Election Day on Tuesday. The Supreme Court refused to fast-track a request by Republicans to review the Pennsylvania court’s decision, but three justices indicated that they would be willing to revisit the issue in the future. 

“But that lawsuit and the decision coming out of it would really only become a factor if Pennsylvania ends up so close that those ballots … end up being decisive,” Diaz said. 

A lot of what-if scenarios would have to align for the case to come into play: Pennsylvania would have to become the decisive state in pushing one of the candidates across the finish line (it isn’t right now), and the margin in the state would have to be so tight that the tiny fraction of ballots received after Election Day becomes decisive.

While none of these lawsuits is expected to meaningfully impact the electoral map, they are likely to foment further strife as they give more ammunition to Trump supporters on the ground to challenge the legitimacy of a Biden win. 

“I think that there’s maybe two separate things going on, one is a PR strategy using litigation trying to undermine confidence in the integrity of the result in order to stoke public distrust,” said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Then they’re just throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall, coming up with whatever claims they can make up,” she said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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