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While its lawsuit against Governor Wolf for a share of federal CARES Act money appears to be over, Lebanon County remains a minor defendant in two other lawsuits over how mail-in ballots will be handled in the upcoming presidential election.
One seeks to tighten restrictions on mail-in ballot procedures, the other asks to relax some rules to encourage mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along with the commonwealth’s 66 other counties, Lebanon County’s Board of Elections is named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit, filed in Pittsburgh, brought by multiple plaintiffs including Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., and the Republican National Committee.
The county’s election board is also a defendant along with the other counties in a lawsuit brought by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
In a cost-sharing move, Lebanon and fifteen other counties have jointly hired Pittsburgh-based law firm Babst Calland to defend them in both lawsuits. They will be billed at hourly rates ranging from $160 to $705, “depending on the expertise and experience of the attorney performing the service,” according to the fee agreement signed by all the participating counties.
Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Commonwealth, is the main defendant in both actions. She is responsible for the conduct of elections statewide. The various county election boards are defendants because each is responsible for the conduct of elections in its county.
Both lawsuits are in their early stages, but will presumably be decided before election day on Tuesday, Nov. 3, given the issues they raise.
Federal Court: Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., and the Republican National Committee v. Boockvar
The federal lawsuit was filed in Pittsburgh by the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and four Pennsylvania Republican congressmen, none of who represent Lebanon County.
In 2019, with strong support from both parties, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed a law expanding voting by mail-in ballot to any registered voter requesting one, no reason being necessary. Before then, only voters with a valid excuse for not being able to vote in person could vote via a mail-in absentee ballot.
The new law says that completed mail-in ballots can be returned only by mailing them to the county election office or by dropping them into a designated lock box at the board of elections office.
No excuse mail-in ballots were first used in last June’s primary election.
The Trump lawsuit claims that Pennsylvania voters were allowed to use procedures not allowed by the new law, including returning mail-in ballots at locations “such as shopping centers, parking lots, fairgrounds, parks, retirement homes, college campuses, fire halls, municipal government buildings and elected official’s offices.”
According to the complaint filed by the Trump campaign and the Republicans, that allowed for “unmonitored mail-in voting which provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.”
The Trump campaign wants a ruling that would prevent mail-in ballots from being returned to locations other than the offices of the county boards of elections.
Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan, who was nominated by President Trump, had ordered the Trump campaign and the other plaintiffs to produce actual evidence of voter fraud, or admit they have none, by August 14. At publication time there was no word on whether they had done so.
According to Lebanon County’s Director of Elections and Voter Registration, Michael Anderson, none of the claimed violations happened in Lebanon County last June, nor will they happen in November.
Anderson said the only mail-in ballots that were counted last June in Lebanon County were either mailed to his office or dropped into the Municipal Building lock box under his department’s control and watched over by the county sheriff.
And, unless the law changes between now and election day, Anderson says the same procedure will be followed for the presidential election.
Commonwealth Court: Pennsylvania Democratic Party v. Boockvar
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party believes that the combination of the still-new mail-in ballot system and a COVID-19 pandemic that makes public areas health risks is enough to justify a relaxation of some election procedures.
Based on that, and delays and problems experienced by several counties in the June primary, it is asking the Commonwealth Court to declare that the following procedures do not violate Pennsylvania election law and that county election boards must implement them in November:
- Remote drop boxes: Allowing secure drop boxes for mail-in ballots at locations away from a central voter registration office.
- Later deadline to receive ballots returned by mail: Currently, ballots returned by mail must be actually received at the county election office by 8:00 p.m. on election night in order to be counted. The Democrats want to count ballots that are postmarked by 8:00 p.m. election night, as long as they are actually received at the election office by November 10.
- Chance to correct “facial defects” in mail-in ballots: Mail-in ballots that have incomplete or incorrectly filled out outside envelopes, or where those envelopes contain extraneous marks, can be disqualified by election officials. Democrats want to require election offices to contact voters and give them a chance to correct these “facial defects.”
- Counting “naked ballots: Mail-in ballots can be mistakenly returned without the inside “privacy envelope” that blocks the actual ballot from being seen before ballot counting time. This led to confusion at some election boards, but the Pennsylvania Department of State has told counties that they may put them into envelopes – “clothe” them – when received. The Democrats want the court to order all county election boards to clothe and count such ballots.
The Democrats say that, unless there is fraud, election laws should be interpreted broadly in favor of counting ballots, rather than disqualifying them.
Quoting from a 1954 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, their complaint states “Election laws will be strictly enforced to prevent fraud, but . . . when and where possible, be so construed as to insure rather than defeat the exercise of the right of suffrage. Technicalities should not be used to make the right of the voter insecure.”