The Chester County Board of Elections agreed in court Monday to a sweeping revamp of its policy towards monitoring ballot dropboxes, including a commitment that dropboxes will always be manned, will have specified hours of availability rather than being open 24/7, and will include video surveillance for every dropbox.
The pledge by the elections board represents one of the toughest new evolutions in election-integrity procedures anywhere in southeast Pennsylvania.
The developments come after a group of concerned citizens filed suit against the election board last month after reviewing hundreds of hours videos obtained through a Right To Know Law request showing surveillance at one unmanned dropbox in the county. The video showed over 300 instances from the 2022 primary election where multiple ballots were dropped off by a single person.
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Pennsylvania law allows for a person to only drop their own ballot with the narrow exception of someone dropping off a ballot for a disabled person, and certain requirements must be met to make those exceptions legal.
Although the agreement came in the wake of the lawsuit, the attorneys for the elections board told Court of Common Pleas Judge William Mahon they intended on making these security updates on their own, and that the lawsuit did not influence their decisions.
During the hearing in West Chester, Judge Mahon said when he and his wife dropped off their primary ballots at the government services building dropbox, even he expressed some bewilderment. “I observed multiple ballots being put into the dropbox. I asked my wife if that was legal,” he said.
According to attorneys for the board of elections, approximately 30,000 to 40,000 ballots are dropped into boxes across the county. With that as the backdrop, Mahon saw the negotiations as momentous, not trivial, saying the parties needed to “figure out a way within your respective positions and powers to preserve the fundamental process that will preserve our republic because it is no less than that that we are discussing. The right to vote and the right to a jury trial are the cornerstones of our republic and separate us from the rest of the world.”
The right to vote and the right to a jury trial are the cornerstones of our republic and separate us from the rest of the world.
Mahon said the process of Chester County elections should “be the best in the Commonwealth,” and expressed his satisfaction with the policy changes enacted by the board of elections. The changes will include two trained staff at every box location, specified hours for every box location, video surveillance at every box location that is available for at least 90 days after the election, and the dissemination of materials at the dropboxes by the trained staff explaining that each person can only drop off one ballot.
Daryl Campbell, the plaintiff who reviewed the hundreds of hours of video surveillance, was mostly satisfied by the outcome which led to the group withdrawing the suit.
“I felt that we got as much as we could based on what the law allowed,” Campbell said.
Campbell added that despite the assertions of the government, he feels certain that the group’s activism and presenting the video led to the changes enacted by the board of elections.
His attorney, Wally Zimolong agreed. “There has been progress because of what my clients found.”
Mail-in voting and dropboxes have been controversial since the 2020 general election. The new policies were adopted when Act 77 passed the legislature with bipartisan support and Governor Wolf signed it into law. However, since 2020, numerous concerns have emerged, similar to the issues alleged in this suit.
Opinions on the matter largely break down along party lines with Democrats supporting and encouraging voting by mail and Republicans seeking to repeal Act 77. There have been legal challenges and proposed legislation to end dropboxes, none of which have been successful. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in September 2020 that the election code allows dropboxes.
Update: The original version of this article incorrectly said a citizens activist group, Chesco United, brought the lawsuit. The group was not a listed plaintiff, only four individuals were. The story also originally said video was reviewed from two dropboxes, but it was only from a single dropbox. The story has been corrected to reflect both of those changes.
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