In August 2020, numerous officials with the Pennsylvania Department of State and the Philadelphia City Commissioner’s Office sent emails and set up phone conferences with one another to discuss “early voting sites,” which eventually became reality in September.
However, those same officials would tell courts in October that the “satellite election offices” set up by the City of Philadelphia were not, in fact, “polling places,” in part so they could continue to bar election observers from the Trump campaign from monitoring any activity.
If an early voting site is equal to a polling place, the emails show the officials were describing the satellite offices one way in private yet rationalizing them another way when before the courts.
While it may seem like a game of semantics, the language involved was precisely the issue when President Donald Trump sued the Philadelphia Commissioner’s office in October that year, having earlier said in a nationally televised debate that “Bad things happen in Philadelphia[.]”
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Without a $10 million grant from a Chicago-based nonprofit, Philadelphia would never have been able to create the numerous “satellite election offices” that greatly expanded the city’s election footprint, not just physically, but also temporally.
When some people with the Trump campaign later attempted to gain access to the sites claiming they were “poll watchers,” they were turned away, and the Trump campaign sued.
(The provenance of these individuals, and their accreditation to act as poll watchers is a matter that has not been thoroughly settled).
“In Philadelphia they went in to watch,” Trump said at the September debate. “They’re called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”
In response to the Trump suit, the city reiterated that the satellite offices were not “polling places.”
The city’s attorneys said poll watchers were denied access because “they were seeking to be poll watchers at locations that are not polling places but rather Board offices that are currently limited to serving residents seeking to utilize the services in those offices in part to minimize health risks associated with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
A Philadelphia judge agreed, then a three-judge panel in Commonwealth Court upheld the original ruling.
“The Trial Court reasoned that the Election Code provides that polling places operate only on Election Day and are available only to voters residing in specific districts, whereas satellite offices are restricted by neither date nor location,” the majority opinion by Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler said.
Yet another document from the initial stages of planning of satellite election offices — a “blueprint” drafted mostly by the Vote at Home Institute and the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit established to “protect and improve the voting process” — called the use of multiple election offices “de facto early voting.”
The Philadelphia City Commissioner’s Office declined to comment on the emails and draft. The Department of State did not respond to requests for comment.
“There is an old saying that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck,” said Senate State Government Committee Chair Senator David G. Argall. “That’s what immediately comes to mind when I hear election officials arguing that a location where a voter receives, completes and returns a ballot is not actually a polling place.”
Argall’s comments were echoed in a dissenting opinion from Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, who was on the losing end of the 2-1 vote in the appeal from the Trump campaign.
“So, the City of Philadelphia has created Satellite Offices purportedly pursuant to provisions of the Election Code which authorize an elector to go to ‘the county board of elections,’ obtain a mail-in ballot, complete it and place it in the proper enclosures, and cast the ballot as an official vote to the election officials—all right then and there, a ‘one stop shop’ so to speak,” McCullough wrote in her dissent. “Pursuant to this scheme, the elector, by any person’s measure, tenders and submits a vote ‘in person’ at a place and under conditions and circumstances that most certainly mimic a traditional polling place.”
They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.
The Committee of Seventy, defended the use of the words “early voting sites” as well as the procedures and legal battles that would unfold in the fall of 2020.
“The procedure followed inside of satellite election offices, for example, has been in place for many years,” said Pat Christmas, policy director for the committee. “Absentee voters have always had the option of requesting, completing and returning their ballots over the counter at an election office. The notable difference starting in 2020 was that any registered voter could do this.”
“That this sort of activity was sometimes labeled ‘early voting’ isn’t quite right,” Christmas continued. “If Pennsylvania had actual in-person early voting with poll books and voting machines, it’d absolutely be important for partisan poll watchers to not only have access to the voting area but an ability to challenge voters on reasonable grounds. This would be a legitimate safeguard. There’s a separate challenge process for absentee and mail-in ballots because obviously many voters are requesting and returning from their homes.
“So unless partisan poll watchers have a logical and lawful role to play in a so-called ‘satellite election office,’ it’s unclear to us why they need to be observing what any voter can do at their kitchen table,” he concluded.
Christmas also noted that the committee’s greatest concerns around trust in elections has to do with the “surge” in baseless claims about voting integrity.
(Comment from the Committee of Seventy was received after publication. The original story has been altered to inclue its remarks.)
Also unclear in the issue is when exactly the Department of State began promoting satellite election offices.
A report from the Inquirer on Aug. 10, 2020, noted that “the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has encouraged counties to set up the satellite offices, including in areas that historically see low turnout or long lines.” The claim was unsourced.
Because of that claim, Broad + Liberty filed a Right to Know request with the DOS seeking any document or email in which the department was encouraging or inviting counties to take advantage of satellite election offices.
The only meaningful document returned from that request was a guidance memo published on Aug. 19, several days after the Inquirer had already noted that some counties were in the process of creating their satellite election offices.
The DOS had previously acknowledged that counties could create the offices in a guidance memo published in January of that year, although at that time the creations were called “county election offices” not “satellite election offices.”
The semantics issue has tripped the city up before on this issue.
When the matter was litigated before the three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court, an attorney for the city had to take back some of his words when describing why “poll watchers” were denied entry.
“One is the spaces and the poll workers, the poll workers weren’t trained — not the poll workers, the board of elections staff — weren’t trained for this,” attorney Michael Pfautz told the judges. “There are obviously concerns about Covid because some of these spaces are quite small.”
While the Pennsylvania General Assembly recently passed a spate of election reforms in conjunction with the 2022-23 budget bill, no modifications to “satellite election offices” were included.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports