Outside the box: Trump campaign draws rebuke for videotaping Philly voters at ballot drop boxes

October 26, 2020

The Trump campaign has been videotaping Philadelphia voters while they deposit their ballots in drop boxes—leading Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, to warn last week that the campaign’s actions fall outside of permitted poll watching practices and could amount to illegal voter intimidation.

The campaign made a formal complaint to city officials on October 16, saying a campaign representative had surveilled voters depositing two or three ballots at drop boxes, instead of only their own. The campaign called the conduct “blatant violations of the Pennsylvania election code,” according to a letter from a lawyer representing the Trump campaign that was examined by The New York Times. The campaign included photos of three voters who it claimed were dropping off multiple ballots.

“This must be stopped,” a local lawyer for the Trump campaign, Linda A. Kerns, wrote in the letter, adding that the actions “undermine the integrity of the voting process.”

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns are focused on Pennsylvania, seen as one of the most important swing states in the election and where polls show Joe Biden with a seven-point lead.

The Trump campaign’s aggressive strategy in Philadelphia suggests its aim is to crack down on people dropping off ballots for family members or anyone else who is not strictly authorized to do so.

According to the Times reports, Kerns demanded that the names of all voters who had used a drop box in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall on October 14 be turned over to the campaign, and insisted that the city station a staff member around every drop box “at all times.” She also asked for footage from municipal cameras around City Hall.

But city officials rejected the assertion that the voters who had been photographed had necessarily done something improper. The city’s lawyers forwarded the campaign’s complaints to the local district attorney, but did not make a formal referral and cast doubt on the assertions. They also said they do not track which voters use which drop box.

“Third party delivery is permitted in certain circumstances,” Benjamin H. Field, a deputy city solicitor and counsel to the city Board of Elections, wrote in a letter sent to Kerns on October 19. “The Board cannot agree with your conclusion on the basis of the information you provided. Nor can the Board, in exercising its duties, assume that an individual is violating the Election Code when that person can act as an agent for a voter who required assistance.”

Under Pennsylvania law, voters are allowed to deliver only their own ballots to drop boxes, unless they are assisting a voter with a disability or who otherwise needs help. But voting has been upended by the pandemic and many voters are unfamiliar with the rules around drop boxes, which they may be using for the first time.

Earlier this month, a Trump campaign official told The Times that the campaign would be videotaping drop boxes but was only interested in people who were dumping large numbers of ballots — not in those bringing an extra ballot or two. That assertion appears to have been false.

Research contact: @nytimes

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