Lawsuit seeks restrictions on mail-in voting

June 30, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th, joined a plethora of plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit seeking certain restrictions on how mail-in ballots will be used in Pennsylvania during the November general election, while expanding the presence of partisan poll watchers.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, alleges “unmonitored” mail-in voting “will lead — and has already led — to the disenfranchisement of voters, questions about the accuracy of election results, and ultimately chaos” in the general election.

Kelly joins seven other plaintiffs, including U.S. Reps. Glenn Thompson, R-15th, John Joyce, R-13th, and Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th; President Donald Trump's re-election campaign; the Republican National Committee; and two Fayette County poll watchers. In their court filing, the group seeks an injunction prohibiting the state's 67 county boards of elections from expanding mail-in capabilities beyond what is prescribed in the state election code. Additionally, the lawsuit requests that the court order the state to allow poll watchers to be present at any precinct, including those outside of their county, or anywhere mail-in ballots are returned.

Currently, poll watchers are only permitted to work at polling stations within the county where they are registered voters.

In a statement issued Monday, Sinceré Harris, executive director of the state Democratic Party, called the lawsuit an attempt to “suppress the votes of Pennsylvanians in the 2020 election.” She further argued that “statewide vote-by-mail was a bipartisan proposal passed by Republican majorities (in both the state House and Senate) in Harrisburg.”

While much of the 57-page complaint rails against what the plaintiffs view as a large source of potential voting fraud, it seeks only to restrict the return of absentee and mail-in ballots to county boards of elections, rather than any “inadequately noticed and unmonitored ad hoc drop boxes.” It also calls for election officials to not be permitted to count ballots lacking secrecy envelopes or envelopes containing markings that indicate the voter's identity, political views or candidate preference.

Butler County commissioners chairwoman Leslie Osche said that while party representatives and the state's Department of State asked the county to do so, Butler did not have any ad hoc drop boxes for mail-in ballots.

“We did not for the very reasons they expressed concerns about in the lawsuit,” she said.

Passed last year by the state's general assembly, Act 77 allowed anyone who wanted to vote by mail-in or absentee ballot to do so, without providing a reason. The law also required that county boards of elections be the mailing place of such ballots.

The lawsuit further argues the presence of poll watchers — often designated and paid by political bodies — would bolster the fairness of mail-in ballot counting.

A key issue in the lawsuit is the allegation that uneven application of the state election code by individual county boards of elections does not guarantee the equal protection of candidates under the law. The complaint cites as an example how the board of elections in Philadelphia County counted ballots that either failed to come in an “Official Election Ballot” envelope or arrived in an envelope that contained marks identifying the voter's identity, political affiliation or candidate preference. On the other hand, the board of elections in Allegheny County did not count such ballots.

The lawsuit further claims that the boards, by making decisions such as establishing expanded ballot drop boxes or by permitting the collection of mail-in and absentee ballots by third parties — known as “ballot harvesting” — ran afoul of their constitutionally derived powers and began, in effect, creating rather than enforcing laws.

There is no timeline on when the 68 defendants — which include Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar and the 67 county boards of elections — must respond to the complaint.

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Alex J. Weidenhof

Alex J. Weidenhof