Cohen wins Lehigh County judicial election by 5 votes (updated version)
Count delayed for 7 months while ballot challenge went through courts
This story was updated Friday afternoon to include comments from the candidates or their lawyer as well as reflect the total vote counts.
When 257 disputed ballots were counted Thursday morning, Zachary Cohen gained barely enough votes to surpass David Ritter to win a seat as a Lehigh County judge.
Cohen won by five votes (32,669-32,664), according to the initial certification by the county Election Board. Before Thursday, Ritter held a 71-vote lead, according to unofficial returns. With the count of undated, mail-in ballots Thursday, Cohen picked up 76 more votes than Ritter (136-60), which was enough to put him in the lead.
“Of course, I’m very disappointed at the ourtcome,” Ritter said Thursday. “It was a gut punch to lose by single digits.” He added he will meet with his legal team to consider possible options, which could include asking for a recount.
Cohen, an Allentown area lawyer, deferred comments to Adam Bonin, his lawyer who has represented him in the protracted legal fight over whether the undated ballots should be counted.
Bonin, whose office is in Philadelphia and specializes in election law, said Cohen’s reaction can best be summed up by his expressions in the photographs from the Thursday count. He then went on to comment on the process that successfuly led to counting all of the ballots.
“I don’t know that voters appreciate that when we say ‘every vote matters’ that we really mean it,” he said on Friday. ”Every voter who made that decision late in he day to go out and vote, that all mattered.”
Thursday’s review of the undated, mail-in ballots from the November 2021 election came after a legal battle that had more plot twists than a John Grisham novel, with hundreds of pages of legal filings and proceedings in county, state and federal courts and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. There was even another election - the May 17 primary - before this judicial race was settled.
The dispute began last November when Ritter learned the county Election Board planned to count 257 mail-in ballots that lacked handwritten dates on outer envelopes. Pennsylvania law requires that voters sign and date outer envelopes used to return ballots.
Since Democrats tend to use mail-in ballots much more than Republicans, it was possible for Cohen to overtake Ritter if those ballots were counted.
Ritter sued to halt the count and lost in county court, where Judge Edward Reibman determined the ballots should be counted. Ritter won an appeal before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Cohen then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which opted against hearing the case.
That prompted the ACLU, on behalf of five voters — Linda Miglori, Francis J. Fox, Richard E. Richards, Kenneth Ringer and Sergio Rivas — to file a federal lawsuit against Lehigh County in January. In March, Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr. of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania determined the ballots should not be counted.
The ACLU then took the case to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that not counting the 257 ballots for such a minor omission disenfranchised voters and violated the Civil Rights Act. The court agreed on May 20 and said the ballots should be counted.
Ritter then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the count, which led Justice Samuel Alito to issue a stay on the ballot count pending further review. On June 9, the full court, in a 6-3 vote, declined to hear the case, clearing the way for Lehigh County to count the disputed ballots.
On Thursday, 226 days after the Nov. 2, 2021, election, the remaining ballots were counted.
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