The US Supreme Court has rejected Republican efforts to block a three-day extension to the deadline for mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania, a key swing state that could decide whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins in November.
The high court issued a brief order on Monday evening that gave no explanation for its decision but indicated that Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of George W Bush, had sided with the liberal justices to create a 4-4 split.
Republicans had asked the justices for a stay on a Pennsylvania court decision that pushed back the deadline for mail-in ballots to three days after the election on November 3, a move that means more votes will be counted.
Previously, Pennsylvania state law required all ballots to arrive by the evening of election day. Five justices would have been needed to issue the stay.
The Supreme Court’s decision could have far-reaching ramifications for an election that could hinge on a relatively small number of votes in a handful of battleground states such as Pennsylvania.
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Though Mr Biden, the Democratic contender, is leading Mr Trump in national polls by a wide margin, the incumbent Republican could yet have a path to victory even if he loses the popular vote.
With just two weeks to go, both parties continue to be locked in intense legal battles about the rules of the election, in particular with mail-in ballots.
Democrats have sought to expand their use and extend deadlines to ensure as many are counted as possible in a year when the pandemic has driven the use of mail-in ballots to unprecedented levels.
Mr Trump by contrast has denounced such ballots as fraudulent, and his party is litigating to retain stricter deadlines and to keep rules in certain states that require voters to get a witness to co-sign their ballot.
The Supreme Court earlier this month reinstated such a witness signature requirement in South Carolina.
The US high court is operating with a reduced number of eight justices after the death last month of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a staunch liberal.
Mr Trump’s replacement for Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett, is set to be confirmed later this month before the election. The president has said he has wanted her confirmed before November 3 to ensure she could rule on any post-election ballot counting litigation.
The court’s order on Monday said the request for a stay had been denied, but that four justices from its conservative wing would have granted it. The two-sentence order gave no details of the reasoning of any of the justices on either side of the 4-4 split.
Ms Barrett, if confirmed as is widely expected, would be a sixth conservative vote, reducing Mr Roberts’ ability to control the direction of the court by joining with the liberal wing as he did in the Pennsylvania matter.
At her confirmation hearings last week before the Senate judiciary committee, Ms Barrett rejected suggestions that she would do Mr Trump’s bidding, saying she would not “allow myself to be used as a pawn to decide this election for the American people”.
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