Law360 (June 29, 2020, 9:15 PM EDT) -- President Donald Trump's reelection campaign and Republican lawmakers filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania federal court Monday claiming the state was violating election law and increasing the risk of fraud by allowing "drop boxes" for collecting absentee and mail-in ballots due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The suit said Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar and 20 county boards of election had gone beyond the state legislature's mandate for expanded mail-in ballots in the June 2 primary by allowing for drop boxes where ballots could be consolidated for collection instead of sticking to the law's requirement that votes be sent directly to election offices.
The drop boxes could not be monitored by campaign poll watchers like regular polling stations, which were consolidated because of increased mail-in voting and concerns about staffing polling sites during the pandemic, the suit said.
"The result is that a significant portion of votes for elections in Pennsylvania are being cast in a fashion that denies any procedural visibility to candidates, political parties, and the public in general, thereby jeopardizing the free and fair public elections guaranteed by the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions," the complaint said. "The use of illegal and inadequately noticed drop boxes or mobile drop-off facilities eviscerates the procedural protections that currently accompany Pennsylvania's vote by mail procedures by creating a gap in the ability of both the Commonwealth and political parties to observe the delivery process and ensure that Pennsylvania's election laws are being followed."
Co-signed by U.S. House members from Pennsylvania Glenn Thompson, Mike Kelly, John Joyce and Guy Reschenthaler, along with the Republican National Committee and two would-be poll watchers, the lawsuit asked the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh to find that the state had violated its own election code and protections of the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. It sought an order either banning the drop boxes for the November general election or forcing their locations to be chosen, publicized and monitored by poll watchers like regular polling places.
Swaths of the complaint focused on the alleged risks of fraud through mail-in balloting, which has been a common claim from Trump, and cited hiccups in getting absentee ballots to voters in Allegheny County, invalid or outdated voter registration records statewide, and cases where absentee ballots were used to cast fraudulent or improperly "harvested" votes in local elections.
The suit said 20 of the 67 counties whose boards of elections were named as co-defendants allowed ballots to be collected at drop boxes in places "such as shopping centers, parking lots, fairgrounds, parks, retirement homes, college campuses, fire halls, municipal government buildings, and elected officials' offices." Others used mobile collection events.
Though the state legislature had authorized statewide, no-excuse-needed absentee voting as part of a voting reform bill in October, the law still required those ballots to be returned directly to the county elections office, either by mail or in-person dropoff, the suit said. But the counties' process for choosing and publicizing the dropoff points or collection drives varied, which the suit said violated the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.
"Most of the other locations that were used to collect mail-in or absentee ballots for the primary election involved the use of unmonitored and/or unsecured 'drop-off boxes' and/or other similar means," the complaint said. "The amount of notice and the fashion in which notice was given concerning the existence, use, and location of the drop boxes and the mobile voting sites varied among the twenty counties that implemented such measures, and many of the notices failed to comply with the Election Code's notice publication requirements."
The Republicans also claimed that some elections boards, such as Philadelphia's, counted mail-in ballots that hadn't followed the code's requirements for being properly sealed inside their official envelopes or not having any of the voter's identifying information on the outside of the envelope.
Poll watchers were important for catching fraud before it happened and for getting out the vote, so the suit said their exclusion from monitoring the drop boxes was of concern to the candidates and voters in general.
"Failing to enact even basic transparency measures or safeguards against fraud creates an obvious opportunity for ineligible voters to cast ballots, invites fraud, and undermines the public's confidence in the integrity of elections — all of which violate the fundamental right to vote, the guarantee of equal protection, and the right to participate in free, fair, and transparent elections as guaranteed by the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions," the complaint said.
The suit also sought to overturn the state's requirement that poll watchers be residents of the county where they want to monitor voting, claiming that the advantage one party holds over the other in some districts makes it difficult for candidates to find qualified poll watchers.
"Shifting from an absentee voting system to one that pushes unmonitored vote-by-mail creates opportunities for fraud, and encourages ballot harvesting where paid political operatives try to collect and deliver loose ballots," said Jenna Ellis, senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign, in a statement. "This lawsuit seeks to restore integrity into the process and mandate the ability of campaigns to monitor the casting, collecting, and counting of all votes."
A representative of Boockvar declined to comment Monday.
The Trump campaign and House Republicans are represented by Ronald L. Hicks Jr., Jeremy A. Mercer and Russell D. Giancola of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, and Matthew Morgan and Justin R. Clark of Elections LLC.
Counsel information for the state and the boards of election was not immediately available.
The case is Donald J. Trump for President Inc. et al. v. Boockvar et al., case number unknown, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
--Editing by Adam LoBelia.
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