State be­comes a bat­tle­ground for elec­tion se­cu­rity chal­lenge

The Morning Call - - State / Region - By Marc Levy and Christina A. Cas­sidy

HARRISBURG, PA. — For anx­i­ety over vot­ing and bal­lot count­ing in this year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, it’s hard to top Penn­syl­va­nia.

Elec­tion of­fi­cials in Philadel­phia, home to one-fifth of the state’s Demo­cratic vot­ers, have been sued by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign, blasted by the pres­i­dent as over­see­ing a place “where bad things hap­pen” and forced to ex­plain se­cu­rity mea­sures af­ter a theft from a ware­house full of elec­tion equip­ment.

Add to that an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mil­i­tary bal­lots that were mis­tak­enly dis­carded in one swing county, par­ti­san snip­ing in the state Capi­tol over the pro­cess­ing of what is ex­pected to be an avalanche of mailed-in bal­lots, and an 11th hour at­tempt by Repub­li­can law­mak­ers to cre­ate an elec­tion in­tegrity com­mis­sion.

One of the most hot ly con­tested pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­ground states is try­ing to con­duct a pan­demic elec­tion in a hy­per-par­ti­san en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery move re­lated to the vot­ing process faces scru­tiny from both sides. State and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials say they are do­ing all they can to make sure Penn­syl­va­nia doesn’t end up like Florida two decades ago, when the last drawn-out pres­i­den­tial tally ended be­fore the U.S. Supreme Court.

“For years, we­have trusted our elec­tion of­fi­cials to be re­li­able and non­par­ti­san. Why should we sud­denly not trust them?” said Eileen Olm­sted with the League of Women Vot­ers in Penn­syl­va­nia. “A lot of this is based on the per­cep­tion of voter fraud, which there is ab­so­lutely no­ev­i­dence of.”

In many ways, Penn­syl­va­nia elec­tion of­fi­cials are in the same po­si­tion as their col­leagues across the coun­try, with the pan­demic forc­ing themto al­ter their nor­mal pro­ce­dures. Other states also are us­ing new vot­ing sys­tems this year and fac­ing law­suits over elec­tion pro­ce­dures.

But the stakes are higher in Penn­syl­va­nia than in most other states. Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Joe Bi­den, a Penn­syl­va­nia na­tive, has vis­ited it more than any other state since Sept. 1, and TV spend­ing is higher than in any other state ex­cept Florida, ac­cord­ing to the po­lit­i­cal ad­track­ing firm Kan­tar/CMAG.

Repub­li­cans have sig­naled that the bat­tle for who wins Penn­syl­va­nia’s 20 elec­toral votes could ex­tend past Elec­tion Day amid chal­lenges to in­di­vid­ual bal­lots.

“We are see­ing the kind of in­ci­dents that are likely to hap­pen in ev­ery elec­tion be blown up to mean there is some­thing fun­da­men­tally wrong with Penn­syl­va­nia elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion and we can’t trust the Depart­ment of State or the coun­ties to give us an ac­cu­rate count,” said Suzanne Almeida with Com­mon Cause Penn­syl­va­nia. “There are any num­ber of rea­sons why that’s not true.”

The big­gest chal­lenge could sim­ply be ver­i­fy­ing and count­ing the crush of mail-in bal­lots, with some 3 mil­lion vot­ers ex­pected to re­quest them. That would be over 10 times the num­ber from four years ago. As of Tues­day, more than 2.6 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers had al­ready ap­plied for mail-in bal­lots.

The Repub­li­can-con­trolled state Leg­is­la­ture has so far re­fused to al­low lo­cal elec­tion of­fices to start pro­cess­ing those bal­lots be­fore Elec­tion Day. That all but en­sures the vote count will con­tinue for days, if not weeks, and per­haps de­lay a fi­nal re­sult in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Yet for all the ac­cu­sa­tions, in­ves­ti­ga­tions and po­lit­i­cal fear-mon­ger­ing, many vot­ers so far say they have had a prob­lem-free ex­pe­ri­ence reg­is­ter­ing and cast­ing bal­lots. That of­fers a glim­mer of hope that per­haps Penn­syl­va­nia will avoid the na­tional spot­light for the wrong rea­sons on Elec­tion Day.

Elzena Hall changed her reg­is­tra­tion from in­de­pen­dent to Demo­crat and cast her bal­lot last week at a satel­lite elec­tion of­fice in Philadel­phia.

“Switch­ing and reg­is­ter­ing and vot­ing it was like so easy,” said Hall, 48, who was given a T-shirt say­ing she had voted early.

Susan Stir­ling, a univer­sity aca­demic ad­viser, had al­ways planned to vote in-per­son on Elec­tion Day be­cause she was con­cerned about drop­ping a bal­lot in the mail. But she had Mon­day off, so she de­cided to cast her bal­lot early at one of the city’s elec­tion cen­ters.

“It went re­ally quickly and smoothly,” she said.

Whether that con­tin­ues could hinge on sev­eral le­gal cases that re­main un­re­solved. With vot­ing al­ready un­der­way, judges could still de­cide fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about run­ning the elec­tion and which bal­lots get counted.

One law­suit be­fore the U.S. Supreme Court in­volves a state court or­der to al­low late-ar­riv­ing mail-in bal­lots to be counted for up to three days af­ter Elec­tion Day. An­other in­volves the Trump cam­paign’s ef­fort to limit the use of drop boxes.

“A huge con­cern I have is the con­fu­sion that out­stand­ing lit­i­ga­tion causes with elec­tion of­fi­cials and vot­ers,” said Wi­told J. Wal­czak, the le­gal di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Penn­syl­va­nia. “Con­fu­sion does not pro­mote safe, ac­ces­si­ble and se­cure elec­tions.”

The an­swer seems ob­vi­ous to Katy Parr, a 30-year-old pur­su­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia: Just make vot­ing eas­ier.

She’s a na­tive of Colorado, one of five states to con­duct elec­tions al­most en­tirely by mail. Parr said she was be­wil­dered by the fight over drop boxes, which are used ex­ten­sively in Colorado.

“It blows my mind how much of a fight it was here to have them ,” said Parr, who cast her bal­lot at an elec­tion of­fice in Philadel­phia this week.

Repub­li­cans and the Trump cam­paign say they are only try­ing to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the elec­tion.

“His po­si­tion was we have to have an elec­tion that is fair, and that ev­ery vote is counted and counted the right way,” said Ber­nadette Com­fort, Trump’s state cam­paign chair.

Democrats use the same ar­gu­ment to crit­i­cize moves by Repub­li­cans. That in­cludes law­mak­ers’ at­tempt to cre­ate a GOP-con­trolled leg­isla­tive panel to in­ves­ti­gate how the elec­tion is be­ing con­ducted. Democrats called it an at­tempt to “steal” the elec­tion.

They also want the Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated Leg­is­la­ture to re­peal a re­quire­ment that mail-in bal­lots be re­jected if vot­ers fail to use a so-called se­crecy en­ve­lope on the out­side. A Philadel­phia elec­tion of­fi­cial has said miss­ing se­crecy en­velopes could trig­ger “elec­toral chaos” in Novem­ber with po­ten­tially 100,000 or more bal­lots get­ting re­jected across the state.

“What (Trump) has en­cour­aged peo­ple to en­gage in is the only type of voter fraud that’s ac­tu­ally real, and that’s voter sup­pres­sion,” said Demo­cratic state Rep. Mal­colm Keny­atta, of Philadel­phia.

Against this back­drop, elec­tion of­fi­cials are try­ing to pre­pare know­ing that some­thing is bound to go wrong with some as­pect of the elec­tion sys­tem.

Nick Cus­to­dio, a deputy com­mis­sioner with Philadel­phia’s elec­tion of­fice, re­called a time two years ago when an elec­tion judge who was sched­uled too pena polling place fell and broke her hip the morn­ing of the elec­tion.

“The polling place didn’t open on­time be­cause this poor wo­man was sit­ting in the snow,” Cus­to­dio said. “Elec­tions are put on by hu­man be­ings. We’re in a sit­u­a­tion where it’s got­ten worse over the last fewyears, where any­thing hap­pens is as­sumed to be ma­li­cious or some out­side ac­tor.”

When asked what keeps him up at night, Cus­to­dio said: “The sheer enor­mity of it.”

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