County commissioners debated Thursday whether the county’s mail-in ballot drop box should be accessible 24 hours a day during elections or its availability limited to the municipal building’s regular business hours.
After lengthy discussion, the commissioners voted along party lines, 2-1, to limit access to the box to regular business hours. Both Republican commissioners William Ames, who is chairman of the county elections board, and Robert Phillips voted yes to limit access while the lone no vote was cast by Democrat commissioner Jo Ellen Litz.
The original motion, as presented by Phillips, sought to bring the box indoors at the end of the business day for security purposes and to have the ballots removed by election officials. Litz refused to second that motion but Ames approved it for the purpose of discussion.
During discussion, Litz pointed out that the motion was impractical since the box is securely bolted to a cement pad.
“When I look at the box, to address the motion, it is not practical to pick it up and carry it inside,” said Litz. “It is bolted fast to a concrete pad that’s very thick and you are not just going to get into it. It was designed for the purpose of (receiving) ballots and similar to a mailbox, it has a very thin slot where the ballot can be inserted.”
Litz added that the box is under constant surveillance video via a camera that is mounted on the box, and said that because the ballot box is similar to mailboxes, which have 24/7 access, their ballot box should be treated likewise.
“The final point is, these boxes are made for law-abiding citizens,” Litz said. “Do we want to assume and treat everyone like a criminal? I don’t think so. We’ve taken beyond the call precautions to ensure we have a secure ballot box because it is designed for that, because it is under surveillance 24/7 by video camera, and we have law enforcement officials in this building all the time who can be there in two minutes if the observer at 911 sees somebody there, we can respond immediately.”
Litz concluded by saying that people who work many jobs may not be able to drop off their ballots during regular business hours.
Phillips responded by saying these are mail-in ballots and that this effort is an expansion to make it more accessible. He added that people can drop their ballots in any mailbox located throughout the county or at any post office.
“It is a federal offense to mess with a mailbox but I don’t believe it is a federal offense if you messed with our box at the courthouse,” Phillips said. “We are expanding and making it more accessible and those people you are saying is a hardship (for), they can go to the mailbox right outside the courthouse. It is not going to prohibit anyone from voting.”
Litz countered by saying that all mail goes to Harrisburg before being delivered and the only way to avoid that from happening is to deliver the ballot directly to a post office during their business hours and ask that your ballot be delivered directly to the elections office.
“You can’t do that with a regular mailbox,” Litz said. “It is the most efficient way for people to drop off after hours in that secure mailbox, which is like a mailbox even though it is not a mailbox. I mean, every precaution has been taken, I think, to serve the public and give them, without any more suppression, the right to vote, (so) we should have that there 24/7.”
Ames said he now sees the impracticality of the bolted box, which the commissioners had approved to purchase just a few months ago.
“My preference would have been to have some other kind of box and have it inside and have it available during business hours,” Ames said. “I know, Commissioner Litz, you are very busy and I know you are not going to be monitoring that surveillance system 24/7. So, we have no way of knowing if someone is monitoring that or not. So at the very least, in my mind, if we propose that ballot box and it is going to be secured outside, it needs to be locked from deposits outside our normal business hours.”
Ames agreed with Phillips that people can drop off their ballot in the U.S. mail, noting that people can come to the box on Election Day or drop off their vote at the county’s voter registration office.
“As far as trust, if we can totally trust everyone, we wouldn’t even be talking about this or even be considering the possibilities,” Ames said. “So I think we need to only have it available during business hours.”
During his remarks, Ames suggested closing the opening overnight as a way to prevent potential voter fraud.
“There would be literally nothing to prevent someone out there harvesting ballots and show up there and put 25, 30, 50 ballots in that mailbox at 2 o’clock in the morning,” said Ames, “and even if we’re monitoring it, (if) we think we’re gonna get clear enough photos and going to be able to identify – and how do we identify which ballots were deposited with the other ballots? It opens a whole can of worms as far as voter fraud is concerned.”
Litz disagreed, saying there is adequate security and that 911 operators would be monitoring the box and noted that the opening is so small that it is impossible to jam more than one ballot in at a time.
She noted that numerous voters attempted to deposit their ballots in the temporary box, which was removed on a daily basis during the recent November elections, and then contacted her office as to why they couldn’t deposit their vote after normal business hours.
“I can’t see any reason why we can’t have that available 24/7,” Litz said. “It is a mailbox, of sorts, and it is still illegal to tamper with a voter registration. And we can prosecute to the fullest extent of the law if someone is messing with our ballots.”
Prior to the vote by the commissioners, Michael Anderson, Chief Clerk Voter Registration, clarified that votes would be removed daily and the box checked each morning to ensure it wasn’t tampered with overnight.
He also asked that if a vote was going to be taken to restrict hours, that the motion should include accessibility until 8 p.m. on Election Day, which is the time that votes are permitted to be dropped off at the county’s voter registration office. The motion did include that provision so that voters can utilize the drop-off box until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
In other voter news, the commissioners tentatively approved a motion to allow constables who are on the election ballot to work at a precinct as peace officers. The approval is tentative based on further clarification from the county solicitor on state law pertaining to constables working an election when their name is on the ballot.
In other election-related business, Anderson told commissioners that the last day to register to vote is Monday, May 3 for the Primary Election on Tuesday, May 18. Additionally, the last date to apply for a mail-in ballot is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 11, which are due no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day.
“The plan is for those to be mailed out on Monday,” Anderson said. There’s still some testing we need to do but Monday those will start. We have just under 6,000 in the queue who have already signed up for the mail-in ballots.”
Anderson added that while this is a Primary Election, in which voters will need to be registered with a given party if they want to vote for a candidate registered with that party, that it is also a Special Election and that voters can vote for whomever they desire regardless of party affiliation.
In other actions of the county election board, officials voted to approve the 2021 Municipal Election Ballot. Anderson noted the upper right corner contains a check box for whether the ballot is mail-in, absentee or election day. He said the ballots are all the same but the box is there to determine which kind of vote it is.
Anderson said the 2021 Municipal Election Ballot contains content on both sides, and noted poll workers will be educated to inform voters that there is content on the front and back of the ballot.
Anderson concluded his presentation to the commissioners by asking anyone who is interested in being a Judge of Elections to contact his office at 717-228-2428. He said that 12 of the 60 countywide judges resigned their positions following the last election.
In other county business, the commissioners:
- Voted to authorize an application for a $500,000 non-matching grant through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to fund the county’s highly successful Renaissance Crossroads program for intermediate offenders for fiscal year 2021-22, which begins July 1, 2021.
- Issued a proclamation declaring April 18-24 as Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
- Heard a presentation from Steve Sherk, Steckbeck Engineering, on pedestrian bridge and trail projects at Jackson Recreational Park and Fairlane Avenue Park, which the commissioners helped to make possible via a $13,000 grant in 2018 through the Marcellus Shale Grant Program. Sherk is also engineer for Jackson Township, where both parks are located.
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. Ames Home Services is a current advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.