As the 2022 election is now in full swing across the commonwealth, voters in Delaware County may hear a phrase that has been repeated countless times in the last three years: that Delco’s ballot dropboxes “are under 24/7 video surveillance.”
The newest member of the county’s election board says even as the county promoted that dropbox video idea in 2020 and 2021, he believes it wasn’t actually the case, based on his own research.
Delco’s handling of dropboxes is part of a larger debate about the devices unfolding across the commonwealth. Chester County pledged in court this week to add stringent monitoring standards to its dropboxes, and Lehigh County decided to completely cut the use of dropboxes altogether until it can get a court ruling on disputed issues.
READ MORE — Sen. Katie Muth called Rachel Levine the “Mess in a Dress,” according to retired Air Force Major General
John McBlain, a Republican and former county councilor, said when he accepted a post with the Delco election board, he wanted to see the dropbox video feeds himself, which someone told him were housed with the county park police. Knowing the territory from his days on the council, he set off on a fact-finding mission.
“They [the park police] said that the video feed is available but there’s no one that is actively watching 24-7. They have a bank of video monitors assigned to the feeds, but they look at all kinds of different monitors from around the county, everything from hallways in the courthouse to parks and trails and, and that sort of thing.”
McBlain further asserts that for the previous years, the video was only a stream and wasn’t being saved so that potential incidents could be called up and reviewed. Having reviewable video after the fact appeared to play a crucial role in the recent developments in Chester County.
The county’s top election official disputes these claims.
Jim Allen, hired away from Chicago in 2021, says many of the dropbox cameras have needed a touch of maintenance over time, but the issues were only detected because of continuous monitoring.
“I came here in 2021 with the inherited network that they have of drop boxes and then security cameras, all of which were originally solar powered and now most of which are solar powered, where we did have issues with the power. We worked a hard wire to serve the locations to the buildings because that proved to be more reliable based on where the solar panel was located. And the reason we would discover those problems is that they were monitored by the park police. And the park police would tell me, ‘Hey, the camera is Swarthmore’s down,’ or ‘Hey the camera in Upper Darby is down.’”
And Allen further says McBlain’s assertion that video couldn’t be recalled is incorrect. Allen says the video feed was first routed through an off-site vendor, and video could be called back through the vendor if necessary. He did indicate that the cost was rather stiff, and that the county never had the need to investigate an incident to the point that it used that feature of the contract.
They have a bank of video monitors assigned to the feeds, but they look at all kinds of different monitors from around the county, everything from hallways in the courthouse to parks and trails and, and that sort of thing.
What both parties agree on is that the county has bought an array of computer servers that now records the video from all of the 40-plus dropbox cameras so that video recall is immediately and directly under the power of the county.
Dropbox security continues to be one of the hottest topics as election security has not faded as an issue in the wake of the 2020 contest.
Next door in Chester County, a group of citizen activists going by the name Chesco United filed suit against the county board of elections after the group used the Right to Know law to uncover hundreds of instances of multiple ballot drop offs from video cameras stationed on the drop boxes.
Although the lawsuit was dropped, Chester County pledged to drastically revise its dropbox monitoring policy. Now every dropbox will be manned by at least two election personnel, the dropboxes will only be available select hours as opposed to being open 24-7, and will put a video camera on each dropbox. Previously, video monitoring was not comprehensive.
Dropboxes became a more prominent fixture in Pennsylvania elections when the state’s election law was overhauled in 2019 with Act 77. That act created no-excuse mail-in absentee voting, and before long, many counties created dropboxes to collect those ballots.
However, Pennsylvania law also specifies that voters may only drop off their own ballots, and not the ballots of others, although there are a limited and highly regulated number of exceptions.
Gov. Wolf admitted to violating that law, and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney narrowly escaped doing the same, but was saved by an elections official who was standing next to the dropbox when Kenney approached it to vote in 2020.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports