The debate over the shuttering of Lebanon County’s mail-in ballot drop box continued at a commissioners meeting on Feb. 1, with three people speaking in favor and two others opposed to that decision. 

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LebTown also spoke with the county’s state legislators to get their opinions on this issue. The vote to stop using the mail-in ballot drop box was 2-1 along party lines with Republican commissioners Bob Phillips and Mike Kuhn in favor and Democrat Jo Ellen Litz opposed.

Lebanon resident Pam Tricamo, who regularly attends commissioner meetings, said she was disappointed that the vote was taken without an alternative method offered instead. She said she was a member of the League of Women Voters for over 25 years and noted it was their mission to improve voting processes.

Delivering mail ballots to the county’s drop box during regular business hours had been an option for voters to get their ballot to the county’s election’s office for the last seven elections.

“We spent a lot of time working to make it easier for people to get out and vote,” said Tricamo. “A county that is as small as ours, with something that’s used by thousands of people, and eliminating it without giving us any heads up and an opportunity to issue our opinions about it, I just don’t think that was the right way to go about it.”

Tricamo asked the commissioners to reconsider reinstating it if they can’t find an alternative “for the handicapped, the elderly and those of us who find it a convenient and secure way to vote.”

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Rachel Moyer of Jackson Township, who is also the founder of the county-based conservative group Pennsylvanians for Freedom, thanked commissioners Kuhn and Phillips for voting to remove the drop box. Moyer is running against state Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102) for his House seat in the April primary election.

“This is one of the issues we have with election integrity,” said Moyer. “When Act 77 was made in 2019, drop boxes were not included in the law, and I appreciate you all standing up for what the law says. Should we have ‘no excuse’ mail-in ballots? Our group consensus is no, but that is the law at the moment.”  

Kevin Miller, Annville Township, echoed Moyer’s sentiment.

“I hope you will stand with that,” said Miller, about the decision but referring to comments Kuhn made to LebTown that the drop box issue is not over yet. “While I can appreciate the drop box makes it easier to vote, I would point out that our country wasn’t founded on making things easier (by) giving things to people. It was founded on liberty and protecting people’s rights. There is always some possibility of fraud when you have a drop box where people are putting ballots in.”

It is illegal to place mail-in ballots for other individuals in a drop box unless a voter is defined as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those individuals can authorize a designated agent to file their mail-in ballot for them along with the official form. 

Although no charges were ever filed in Lebanon County in the four years the drop box was used, Phillips said he was told by individuals that they had dropped off more than one ballot after the decision to remove it was made public by the press. 

Asked by LebTown after the meeting why he sought to have it removed, Phillips referenced court cases in Chester and Lehigh counties as the impetus. 

Phillips said he doesn’t know when he discovered that drop boxes were not required by state law. (A Chester County lawsuit was filed in September 2022, video supposedly showing “ballot stuffing” in Lehigh County was shot in 2021, and drop boxes were first used in Pennsylvania in 2020.)

Phillips did not serve on the elections board while running for re-election last year, and so could not have had the drop box removed for the 2023 primary and general elections. State law prohibits commissioner candidates seeking re-election from serving on the county’s election board. Previously, Phillips chaired the elections board but ceded that position to Kuhn when the board reorganized in early January.  

When asked after the meeting about the timing of his decision to seek its removal, Phillips said he’s been learning about drop box violations in recent months. 

“I’ve been hearing about these things but I got serious about it in the last couple of months during the (last) election process,” said Phillips. “Delved into a little further to see what the reality is, so I got these court cases and they supported what people were saying about the vulnerability about the box.” 

Lebanon resident Shirley McGowan said during the meeting that she’s used the drop box in the past and found it to be very secure, adding there are extra security personnel inside the main door who watch the drop box. 

While that is a view that’s been expressed by others, it is today an inaccurate statement.

Sheriff Jeffrey Marley Jr. previously told LebTown that the deputies are not required as part of their duties to monitor the drop box. Their presence at the rear entrance to the county courthouse is to ensure building security, although three cameras, one on the box and two on the building, were used to monitor the drop box.

As of the 2020 general election, sheriff’s deputies were monitoring the drop box, according to comments at the time by former county elections director Michael Anderson to the commissioners. It is not clear when or why that policy was changed.

“That’s the whole problem here: access,” McGowan said. “How can someone with a disability have access to this (when) dropping off the ballot? Yes, you can have people observe, that’s fine. Yes, you can have them give it to one person. But let’s have access to all people.”

Barb Seifert of Jackson Township was one of three county residents to speak out against the use of drop boxes during elections while two others favor it as a way to return mail-in ballots to county election officials. (James Mentzer)

Barb Seifert of Jackson Township criticized the drop box and “the machines” that are used in the election process. She also encouraged commissioners to “do the right thing and go back to paper ballots.” (In Lebanon County, everyone votes by paper ballot.)

“Get rid of what Pennsylvania is doing in allowing anyone to come in and register to vote whether you are a citizen or not,” Seifert added.

Following the commissioners meeting, WLBR news reporter Laura LeBeau – who has been an outspoken supporter of the drop box on her Facebook page – got into a somewhat heated exchange with Phillips while Kuhn spoke at length with the three individuals who supported the box’s removal.

LeBeau asked Phillips several times why it mattered if more than one ballot was placed in the drop box since voter records are verified at the county elections office as being a legitimate vote.

“I just think you are creating a problem that doesn’t exist,” said LeBeau during questioning. Phillips responded, “I know you do because you don’t care about the legality, and that’s important.”  

Rep. Diamond said he’s opposed to the use of drop boxes, in addition to never being authorized by law, because they’re used inconsistently across the state. 

Diamond’s district includes Annville, Bethel, Heidelberg, Jackson, Millcreek, North Lebanon, South Lebanon, Swatara, Union and West Lebanon townships and Cleona, Jonestown, Myerstown, and Richland boroughs. 

“Without any laws governing how the security is put into place, then you are not going to have fair and equal elections across the commonwealth – which is required by the constitution because every county is going to do it differently,” said Diamond. “Unless it is required by law, counties ought to opt not to do it.”

State Rep. John Schlegel (R-101) agreed with the commissioners’ decision to remove the box. Schlegel’s legislative district includes Lebanon city, Cornwall Borough, and North Cornwall, North Lebanon, South Lebanon, West Cornwall, West Lebanon townships.

“It’s not even up for debate for me because it’s not in the law,” Schlegel said. “When it first came out because of COVID, the United States Congress made sure the United States Postal Service was ready and able to handle the volume of mail-in ballots.”

Drop boxes were first permitted for use by a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During the commissioners meeting when the drop box decision was determined, county elections director Sean Drasher said his office had outbound mail-in ballots returned to his office as undeliverable even though they had legitimate addresses.

He cited the delays as frustrating voters who had requested mail-in ballots not receiving theirs in a timely manner. (He also said lines would be long if voters had to return their ballots to the county elections office, which is located on the second floor at the county courthouse on 8th Street in Lebanon.)

Diamond shared Drasher’s concerns about the postal system.

“Very concerning for somebody who works in the postal service and has the authorization to correct anything that is wrong, but that is out of my bailiwick,” said Diamond when asked whether he believes voters have confidence in the post office returning their ballots to county election officials.

State Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48) said in an email statement he believes the removal of the drop box is inconsequential to the democratic process. The 48th district includes Lebanon County and parts of Berks and Lancaster counties.

“Mail-in voters can still visit the county election office to return a ballot in person,” wrote Gebhard. “However, it’s likely most mail in voters will use the USPS. Concerns over the reliability of getting mail picked up by the USPS seems dubious because, after all, these mail-in voters are using the same postal service to receive said mail-in ballots.” 

As of publication, state Republican Party officials had not responded to multiple LebTown email and phone requests for comment.

The Pennsylvania Senate website indicates in an April 2022 press release that it is opposed to drop boxes. Three Republican senators are listed as having introduced Senate Bill 1200, which would require mail-in ballots that are not returned in the mail to be returned only to the County Board of Elections office, effectively eliminating drop boxes in Pennsylvania.  

State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-42) introduced Senate Bill 401 in March 2023 that would authorize counties to create an “official county drop box” for the return of absentee and mail-in ballots. Fontana’s legislative district includes a portion of Allegheny County. 

County Commissioners voted by a 2-1 vote to stop using the drop box for mail-in ballots at their Jan. 18 meeting. (LebTown file photos by Will Trostel)

This potentially is not the last time that the use of a drop box comes before the Lebanon County Commissioners. 

Kuhn previously told LebTown that he is in favor of a drop box if its security can be ensured. He informed LebTown last week that he, along with county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth and Drasher, are exploring possible solutions. 

“The mail-in ballot is here, it is the law,” said Kuhn when asked about his support for a possible drop box solution. “I don’t want to make it more inconvenient for people but I don’t want to give up that security. So I asked Jamie and Sean to sit down and brainstorm.”

Kuhn said vacant space at a mall has been considered but isn’t “convenient enough,” and an area outside the county building has also been discussed, but he cited logistical and other concerns for that not being a viable solution. 

LebTown asked if space on the first floor of the county building might be used since that space is vacant – including a large area that was vacated by the city’s downtown move.

“That was the first thing I started thinking about, but then I was thinking that’s still not ideal because they (voters) still have to come into the building, down the ramp – if they have a wheelchair – and up the steps,” said Kuhn. “I help people all the time who I see coming in to pay their tax bill and they’re coming up to the steps … and I stop and help them.”   

Kuhn wouldn’t say if a solution might be presented at the next regularly scheduled commissioners’ meeting on Feb. 15, noting it was “premature” and also a process that must include “a good plan that’s also a reasonable compromise that’s secure but also allows for easier access.” If not considered at the next meeting, no decision would be made until the next one, which falls on March 7 since Leap Year, Feb. 29, falls on a Thursday this year.

It’s unclear how long a “reasonable solution” would need to be implemented and whether it can happen in time for mail-in ballots to be returned via a county-endorsed drop box before Pennsylvania’s Primary Election on Apr. 23. (Mail-in ballots, which are slated to be mailed from the county election office on March 14, must be in the hands of election officials by 8 p.m. on Election Day.)

LebTown asked Phillips following the meeting if he would favor an alternative drop box that is more secure than the prior one. 

“Security is the issue for me. If it’s a vote to bring the drop box back, that will be a no from me. I am steadfast on that,” said Phillips. “But I would be willing to hear anything, if somebody has something that they want to talk about that makes sense. I am willing to hear about it, but I don’t know that I can support anything other than what I’ve already done.”

Litz is on record in favor of the county having the same drop box, citing it as a more secure way to return election ballots than via federal postal service mail boxes.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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