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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports
2 thoughts on “Delco’s dropbox video wasn’t always monitored or accessible, election board member says”
Good early morning to you Mr. Shepherd. I am a resident of Delaware County, PA. I am an admirer of your work at Broad and Liberty. Recently I came across your article on drop boxes in the county with the quotes from Board of Elections (BOE) member John McBlain, disputed by Jim Allen, the Director of Elections for the county. It is amazing how Allen from Chicago thinks he knows more about DelCo than McBlain, who is a Delco native. (BTW, McBlain is not the newest member of the Delco BOE. That person would be Scott Alberts, who replaced outgoing Chair Gerald Lawrence, who retired from the BOE in July.)
I believe Mr. McBlain is 100% correct in his statements that Delco’s drop boxes lack proper monitoring. You quote Mr. Allen as saying that the video feed from the drop boxes can be retrieved, but that the county has not done that because it has not been necessary. According to Allen, being responsive to citizens, who pay his generous salary, is not necessary. Citizens have submitted RIght to Know (FOIA) requests for the video feed from the drop boxes from the May 17, 2022 Primary Election. We have been denied that request by the county because according to Allen, it is not necessary. That is the attitude of some of the officials in Delco whose salaries are paid by our tax dollars.
Several Delco citizens have attended BOE meetings since April and have requested that the county preserve the video feeds from the drop boxes and that those feeds should be provided to the public. James Allen has admitted that the video feeds are not available, which I have taken to mean they no longer have them because they have not preserved them. Allen also states that the county will be the guardian of drop box videos going forward, as if such an action by the county could possibly instill any more confidence in the integrity of any preserved video!
Delco currently uses a whopping 40 drop boxes, almost half of all the drop boxes in the entire commonwealth of PA. Compared with Chesco’s paltry 13 drop boxes, ours cover a much smaller, albeit more populous geographical area than Chester. The drop boxes were acquired with the assistance of Councilwoman Christine Reuther who arranged a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTLC) funded by Mark Zuckerberg. They have been installed in heavily democrat leaning communities across the county and have never been properly monitored. Recently the county received a 2.1 million dollar Election Integrity grant from the state as part of Act 88. The county had already budgeted for the election so this grant was a windfall meant to secure Delco’s elections. Citizens have requested that the county use some of that money to take a variety of actions to make the drop boxes more secure. Some suggestions are:
1. That the number of boxes be reduced, as the sheer number of these boxes is unmanageable and abusive of its citizens, since it demands an army of watchdogs to monitor what the county refuses to monitor.
2. Upgrading the cameras since solar panels may not work when the sun does not shine. They are placed there for show, to make the public think everything is hunky-dory.
3. Preserving video feeds and making them available to citizens in digital format.
4. Placing the cameras closer to the drop boxes at angles in which potential ballot stuffing by individuals could actually be seen. 50 feet away doesn’t cut it.
5. Live streaming the video in real time so that it can be monitored by citizens without having to be physically present at the boxes. Or do they want citizens to be on site for some reason?
6. Hiring more Park Police to monitor the video feeds 24/7.
7. Producing actual, signed and time-stamped chain of custody logs that prove that the county has been following its own stated procedures on the retrieval of ballots from the drop boxes. (RTK’s for these logs have been denied, since like the drop box video, such logs likely do not exist.)
8. Eliminating the drop boxes altogether and letting the mail-in ballots pass through the USPS where each piece of mail is scanned at least.
In return for reasonable requests and demands, some Delco officials have been gaslighting citizens and denying evidence that un-monitored drop boxes pose a problem. They have lied to, insulted, and denigrated citizens, falsely accusing them of being election deniers, anti-Semites, racists. Check out the county video of the meetings of the Board of Elections and the County Council at delcopa.gov.
By refusing to do their job, and refusing to admit the potential election security issues involving drop boxes, county officials have placed a heavy burden of monitoring 40 drop boxes squarely on the backs hard-working volunteers. Councilwoman Reuther has even implied that watchdog citizens intend to intimidate or interfere with the rights of voters to cast their ballots, an unfounded and malevolent accusation. Is Ms. Reuther refusing to invest in more security so as to entrap citizen watcher volunteers, as they are forced to keep 24/7 eyes on the drop boxes that the county has placed on our streets but refuses to properly monitor?
The high cost of managing the drop boxes is another matter that burdens the taxpayer and is financially unsustainable going forward. The county has the burden of proving that the elections they run are fair, accurate, and secure. The lack of attention and refusal of the county to monitor the drop boxes is evidence that Delco officials do not care about securing its elections.
Thank you for reporting on this critical issue. In 2020, I saw a pop-up hamper being used as a drop-box in Upper Darby township. It’s ridiculous to think there is a need for 40 drop-boxes in Delaware County.