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Lehigh County Judge Rejects Ballot Box Restrictions

Judge Thomas Capehart rejected a lawsuit by four residents who demanded that ballot drop boxes be open only during “normal” business hours and be monitored in person. All plaintiffs were Republicans.

(TNS) — With Election Day less than three weeks away, a Lehigh County, Pa., judge has rejected a lawsuit by four residents who demanded tighter restrictions on ballot drop boxes.

The plaintiffs, all Republicans, demanded the boxes at the government center in Allentown and other parts of the county be open only during “normal” business hours and be monitored in person to make sure voters drop only their own ballots, or ballots they have been authorized to drop.

In a ruling issued late Tuesday, Judge Thomas Capehart said evidence presented at hearings on the case showed in-person monitoring had not conclusively reduced third-party ballot dropping, but better education, publicity and signage had succeeded in doing so.

Additionally, in-person monitoring, “while seemingly innocuous, is more likely than not to have the unintended result of in-person intervention at the drop box sites and may unduly interfere with voters lawfully returning their ballots to the drop box.”

Capehart also said the county had made its case that it would be too difficult to hire and train drop box observers in such a short time, meaning the boxes, which many voters rely on, would be eliminated.

“With better and clearer information being provided to voters by the [county election board] and with this information being publicly disseminated to the electorate in a timely fashion, the integrity of mail-in voting via drop boxes in Lehigh County remains safe and secure,” the judge wrote.

He also said granting the suit’s demands at this late date is likely to create confusion and uncertainty around the election, further eroding the public’s confidence in the process. Mail-in ballots “have already been sent to voters with information designed to assist voters when voting by mail, and any changes to these instructions is unlikely to be timely or clear,” Capehart wrote.

Lehigh County had delayed deploying its ballot boxes until Capehart made his decision. Elections Clerk Timothy Benyo said he opened the government center box in Allentown Wednesday morning after the ruling was issued; other boxes will be in place by Monday as planned.

The suit, filed in September, named the elections board — county Executive Phillips Armstrong, Jennifer Allen and Dennis Nemes — along with Benyo and Deputy Clerk Diane Gordian.

The plaintiffs were Jackie Rivera, secretary of the Lehigh County Republican Committee; Tim Ramos, the unsuccessful GOP candidate in the Allentown mayoral race; Sean Gill, a former Upper Macungie Township supervisor and former Lehigh County Republican Committee chairperson; and Robert Smith, a former Allentown School Board member who is the Republican nominee for the new 22nd House District.

They were represented by the America First Legal Foundation, an advocacy group formed in April 2021 by former President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and longtime Trump adviser Stephen Miller to “turn the tables on the radical left,” according to its website.

The suit cites findings by Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, who responded to complaints about the 2021 election from the county’s Republican committee by assigning four detectives to review surveillance video from the boxes in Allentown, Lower Macungie Township, North Whitehall Township, Fountain Hill and Emmaus.

The review determined at least 288 people dropped off more than one ballot between Oct. 18 and Election Day. Doing so carries a penalty of fines up to $2,500 or a two-year jail term. But because most of the people couldn’t be identified, Martin — who, independently of the lawsuit, has supported in-person monitoring and limited hours — declined to prosecute anyone.

Capehart noted Martin found no “smoking gun” in the investigation; the most egregious example was one person dropping five or six ballots, but the vast majority of cases involved two ballots, likely those of spouses or other household members.

Pennsylvania voters were allowed no-excuse, mail-in voting in a bipartisan measure that passed in 2019, but the changes became controversial following its use in the 2020 elections in the midst of the pandemic. Trump has baselessly claimed that mail voting leads to widespread fraud.

Capehart said the county “has seen fit to take steps to protect election integrity and comply with Pennsylvania law. In doing so it has made policy decisions with which the court will not interfere, such as the decision to use drop boxes, not employ manned ballot drop boxes , as well as the decision regarding the location and available times for each drop box.

“Where the law does not clearly dictate, the court will not second guess the wisdom or efficacy of the board’s policy decisions.”

Benyo said the county has always gone “above and beyond” requirements for election security. It installed video monitors in drop box locations when they were first deployed in November 2020, though such surveillance isn’t mandatory.

In response to Martin’s recommendation, the county installed more prominent signs cautioning voters they can only drop their own ballots, unless they have official authorization to drop one on behalf of a disabled person.

In addition, only the government center drop box is available 24/7. The others are in municipal buildings in Whitehall Township, Fountain Hill and Macungie and in the lobby of the Lehigh County Authority in Lower Macungie Township.

“The boxes are inside, there’s people around them,” Benyo said. “They’re more secure than a mailbox sitting in the street.”

©2022 The Morning Call. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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