Trump Camp, RNC Goes After PA’s Use Of Drop Boxes For Mail-In Ballots

President Donald Trump speaks to the press before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on February 18, 2020 in Maryland. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
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June 30, 2020 2:13 p.m.

A new lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee seeks to block the use of drop boxes for Pennsylvania voters to submit their mail-in ballots.

The lawsuit, announced Monday, alleges that by letting voters submit their mail ballots at locations other than at their county board of elections’ offices or through the mail, election officials ran afoul of state law. It also claims that the use of drop boxes in Pennsylvania’s primary amounted to a violation of the U.S. constitution.

“Upending our entire election process and undermining ballot security through unmonitored by-mail voting is the single greatest threat to free and fair elections,” the lawsuit claims.

Not every Pennsylvania county set up drop boxes for voters, but many did, particularly as concerns grew that voters weren’t receiving their ballots in time for them to be returned by mail.

Election officials in several other states also set up mail ballot drop boxes for their spring and summer primaries, during which absentee voting skyrocketed due to the pandemic. The use of drop boxes is also common in states that had widely-used absentee voting or mail-in voting operations prior to the pandemic, and some of those states require the use of drop boxes in a way that maximizes convenience for voters.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission offers guidance on how to use drop boxes securely for absentee voting. The Commission advises elections officials to set one up for every 15,000–20,000 registered voters.

Pennsylvania has been following the national best practices in how it employed drop boxes, according to Amber McReynolds, the CEO for the National Vote At Home Institute and Coalition. Her group has been advising local and state election officials on mail voting since the state passed 2019 legislation expanding the use of the mail balloting.

It’s unclear how many Pennsylvania voters took advantage of the drop box option there. But in Philadelphia, an estimated 3,500 voters submitted ballots at mobile drop boxes that were operated by the non-partisan group Committee of Seventy, in partnership with Philadelphia’s election officials. Under the partnership, which the GOP lawsuit called out explicitly, voters could drop off their ballots at a van that traveled to different parts of the city in the days leading up to the election.

David Thornburgh, the group’s president and CEO, told TPM that the ballots were only handled by city commission staff or their designated representatives.

Republicans nonetheless claim that the option “provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.”

The GOP lawsuit in Pennsylvania appears to be the first time that the RNC or the Trump campaign has gone after the practice of using drop boxes for absentee ballot submission, as Republicans have focused on other aspects of the absentee voting process in litigation elsewhere.

The RNC did not directly answer TPM’s inquiry about whether it will challenge the use of drop boxes in other states.

An RNC spokesman said in a statement that Democrats had “political motives” in trying to “fundamentally and radically transform the way Americans vote.”

“The RNC and Trump campaign continue our fight to protect ballot security and reduce chances for fraud and administrative chaos in November by ensuring campaigns can fairly monitor the casting, collecting and counting of votes,” the spokesman, Steve Guest, said. “All voters, regardless of political stripes, deserve to have confidence in their elections system and this lawsuit seeks to restore that integrity.” 

The Trump campaign did not respond to TPM’s inquiry. A spokesperson for Kathy Boockvar, the top state elections official who is among the lawsuit’s defendants, said that her office does not comment on active litigation. The Republicans are also suing the heads of elections in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

McReynolds, of the National Vote At Home Institute and Coalition, said it was “ironic” Republicans were now going after drop boxes given their long-held objections to the practice known as “ballot harvesting,” in which third parties collect absentee ballots to submit on behalf of voters.

“It’s the most illogical, counterproductive thing. They’re speaking out of two sides of their mouth at the same time,” she said. “Ballot drop boxes are actually a way to enhance security, provide better access, give voters the option to drop off themselves … why aren’t we suing over postal boxes too? It literally makes no sense.”

The lawsuit repeatedly refers to the drop boxes as “unmonitored,” “unsecured” and “ad hoc.” The Republicans claim that there was inadequate notice for how they were being set up, putting election officials at odds with the state’s procedures. The lawsuit alleges that the lack of uniformity in how they were used across the state was a violation of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The lawsuit claims that because the drop boxes allegedly increase the “potential for ballot fraud or tampering,” their use violates the First and 14th Amendments.

The lawsuit is seeking to stop the use of drop boxes entirely. But it said that if the court is unwilling to find the practice illegal, it should order election officials to “publish uniform state-wide guidance on absentee ballot drop boxes” that will require the same notice procedures that is mandated for in-person polling places.

Another aspect of the lawsuit seeks to loosen Pennsylvania’s rules on poll watchers. Specifically, Republicans are seeking to block a rule that poll watchers only serve in the counties of their residence.

Up until 2018, the RNC avoided being involved in these types of election day “ballot integrity” activities due to a decades-old consent decree with the DNC that expired that January.

The lawsuit makes clear if drop boxes are used in the fall elections, Republicans want to place poll watchers at those locations.

Read the lawsuit below:

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