By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday allowed the counting of undated mail-in ballots in an undecided 2021 election for a Pennsylvania judgeship in a case that again revealed the tensions among the justices over voting rights.
The decision by the justices against David Ritter, a Republican candidate for a judgeship on the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, means that Pennsylvania officials can count 250 mail-in ballots in that election that lacked a handwritten date. Ritter had sued the county board of elections over concerns he would lose the race if those votes were counted.
Three conservative justice - Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch - dissented, saying the court should have blocked the votes from being counted. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority. The nine justices have often split on voting issues, usually on ideological lines dividing the court's conservatives from their liberal colleagues.
Alito wrote of his concern that the lower court ruling involved in the case "could well affect the outcome" of elections being held in November. In Pennsylvania, there is a closely watched U.S. Senate race between Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman that could help determine which party controls the chamber.
The action by the justices left in place a May ruling by the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the undated ballots could be counted.
Litigation over Pennsylvania's mail-in ballot rules was a feature of the 2020 presidential election in which the state was a key battleground. Republican then-President Donald Trump lost the state to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, with the fight over mail-in ballots that favored Biden helping to fuel Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud.
The 3rd Circuit ruled in Ritter's case that under a provision of the federal Civil Rights Act, the failure to include the date on a mail-in ballot is "immaterial" to whether the ballot was valid and therefore should be counted. The provision in question is aimed at protecting the right to vote.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)