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Key swing-state election lawsuits could help shape the presidential race

The presidential contest between President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE and Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE is on track to be the most litigated election cycle in U.S. history.

With less than two months until Election Day, the voting rules in key battleground states are the focus of bitterly partisan court fights over everything from expanded access to mail voting, the franchise of former felons and restrictions on third-party collection of absentee ballots.

Here’s a look at some of the election-related lawsuits playing out in five key battleground states that could help shape how the presidential contest is fought and perhaps even decided.

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Florida

The biggest election law dispute in Florida this election cycle concerns the steps that former felons are required to take to regain their right to vote. At stake in the case is the franchise of nearly 800,000 would-be Floridian voters with felony records, an estimated two-thirds of whom are Black, who tend to lean Democratic.

The fight traces back to a 2018 amendment to Florida’s Constitution — known as Voting Restoration Amendment 4 — that restored voting rights to those with most types of felony convictions who had completed “all terms” of their sentences.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans Group of Florida mayors calls on DeSantis to issue mask mandate DeSantis promises to keep Florida open despite recent coronavirus case surge MORE (R) the following year signed into law a bill that obligated Floridians with felony records to settle all outstanding court debt before their voting rights were reinstated. Democrats and civil rights groups say the law is an unconstitutional modern-day version of a Jim Crow-era poll tax.

The case eventually made its way up to the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Earlier this month, the Atlanta-based court voted 6-4 to uphold a Florida law requiring indigent former felons to pay off outstanding court fees as a precondition to having their voting rights restored.

Following the ruling, the Campaign Legal Center, a voting rights advocacy group that represents the challengers, said it was considering its options, though election law experts say it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court would take the case before the fast-approaching election.

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Michigan

In Michigan, the state’s top election official, a Democrat, has found herself in the middle of several legal battles. 

One series of cases involves challenges to Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s authority to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications statewide to all registered voters. The latest development came Wednesday when a state appeals court sided with Benson.

In a separate case, a Republican activist is suing Benson and other election officials in a bid to force the state to remove ineligible voters from rolls in more than a dozen counties with “abnormally high” levels of registration.

The case has drawn outside interest from some well-resourced supporters. The plaintiff, Anthony Daunt, who heads up the Michigan Freedom Fund, is being backed by the Honest Elections Project, which is involved in election-related litigation across the country with the stated purpose of ensuring election integrity.

Earlier this month, the League of Women Voters of Michigan asked the court for permission to intervene in the case on behalf of the state’s election officials. The defendants have asked the case to be dropped, and argue that the kind of aggressive voter purge that Daunt seeks would likely wind up removing eligible voters from the polls.

Pennsylvania

The top state court in Pennsylvania issued a Thursday ruling that addressed a slew of rules covering everything from absentee ballot deadlines to how strictly election officials should treat minor errors.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s decision was something of a mixed bag for the plaintiff voters, who were backed in the case by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Under the divided ruling, the court granted voters’ request to allow mail ballots to be filed at drop boxes, an issue which has become a legal flashpoint as voters across the country have pushed for greater alternatives to in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The court also agreed to relax a critical deadline related to the return of absentee balloting. The previous rule stipulated that mail ballots must be received no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day. But Thursday’s ruling obligates Pennsylvania to accept ballots postmarked by that time, as long as they arrive within three days after Nov. 3.

The ruling also upheld the constitutionality of a state election law that requires that poll watchers be residents of the county where they are participating. But the court declined to require election officials to notify voters of errors with their ballot or provide an opportunity to correct them.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin residents filed a class-action lawsuit against state election officials and lawmakers that raise a series of issues, both backward- and forward-looking. The case, which has drawn the interest of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Wisconsin, who now back the defendants, is currently pending in federal trial court.

Part of the lawsuit concerns alleged harms that resulted from the state’s controversial April 7 primary election, which was subject to a flurry of last-minute legal and political wrangling that reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court on the eve of the vote.

The suit alleges that Wisconsin’s failure to create reasonable accommodations for primary voters amid the pandemic caused thousands to “sacrifice their vote rather than run the risk of in-person voting during America’s worst infectious disease outbreak in more than a century.” The plaintiffs are asking the court both to recognize the state’s past failings and order it to avoid a similar situation in the November general election.

Arizona

A case with the potential to make it harder for people of color to cast ballots in the Grand Canyon State this November is currently on petition for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Arizona Republicans have asked the justices for permission to revive a pair of voting restrictions that a lower court struck down as racially discriminatory.

One of the disputed policies deals with how Arizona election administrators must handle ballots that are cast at the wrong polling place, or precinct. Under Arizona’s out-of-precinct rule, which has its roots in a policy that dates back to the 1970s, administrators are required to throw away any miscast ballot in its entirety.

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Arizona Republicans say out-of-precinct policies are common across the U.S. and help ensure ineligible voters do not cast ballots in local races for officeholders who are running to represent a different geographic area.

The second voting restriction at issue is a 2016 Arizona law — H.B. 2023 — that criminalizes the collection and delivery of another person’s ballot, a service which minority voters are overwhelmingly more likely to rely on than white voters.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to discuss the petition at their Sept. 29 conference.

A separate case involving minority voting rights in Arizona concerns a bid by Navajo Nation tribe members to ease the state’s deadline for mail-in ballots in the November election, citing the Postal Service slowdown that's heavily affecting reservation residents.