PHILADELPHIA — President Donald Trump’s campaign challenged Philadelphia’s new satellite election offices in court Tuesday, arguing that its representatives should have the right to observe what happens inside the locations where voters can request and submit mail ballots.
Trump campaign lawyer Linda Kerns accused the City Commissioners, who run elections, of twisting Pennsylvania state law to open the satellite offices and allow voting to happen outside of public view.
“No one’s asking to interrupt the process,” Kerns said. “All we’re asking to do is to shine a light on it.”
The Trump campaign sued Philadelphia last week after the city opened the offices where people can register to vote, apply for mail ballots, fill them out, and return them. It was the latest attempt by Trump and his allies to undermine public confidence in the 2020 election. And it came after the campaign sent supporters to monitor the locations, which state law doesn’t allow, as it does at traditional polling places on Election Day.
Trump himself brought up his supporters being barred from the locations during last week’s debate with Joe Biden, saying, “Bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
But city officials maintain that the new offices are not polling locations, and therefore official poll watchers are not permitted under law. The Trump campaign hadn’t even applied to have official poll observers approved when it sent representatives to the satellite offices, officials said, as is also required under state law. And Benjamin Field, a lawyer for the city, noted Tuesday that votes are not recorded or counted in those offices.
“The canvas begins at 7 a.m. on Election Day and happens going forward, and there are provisions for candidates to be observing that process,” he said, using a term for counting ballots.
Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer did not immediately rule on the issue but expressed skepticism of the Trump campaign’s arguments.
“Life is moving so fast here,” he said. “But … it just seems that if poll watchers were required, they would be in the election statute for mail-in voting.”
This is the first year any Pennsylvania voter can vote by mail, and election law now also requires counties to provide mail ballots on demand to voters who request them in person. That allows for a kind of in-person early voting, and the Pennsylvania Department of State has encouraged counties to open satellite elections offices to make it easier for voters to vote early.
Several counties surrounding Philadelphia, as well as Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh and its inner-ring suburbs, are also planning to open multiple early voting sites.
While voters do cast ballots in these locations, they do so in the same way they would using mail ballots inside their own homes — just without receiving or sending them through the mail. “We don’t give someone a poll watcher certificate to … watch somebody fill out their ballot at their kitchen table,” Al Schmidt, a Republican and one of the city commissioners, said last week.
The lawsuit itself played off of Trump’s comments at the debate, stating in the first line of the official complaint: “Bad things are happening in Philadelphia.”
Kerns echoed that sentiment during Tuesday’s hearing and argued that observers have a right to be present wherever votes are cast in a public building.
“We’re going to elect the next president of the United States, so the candidates on the ballot have a lot at stake here,” she said. “And things happen when people are not watching.”
Field argued that voters have a right to fill out a mail ballot in any place of their choice and do not require observation.
“That person can vote that ballot immediately, if they choose,” Field said. “That person can vote that ballot on their kitchen table. That individual can walk to the post office and vote that ballot, or fill it out if you will … and the individual can deliver the ballot by either handing it back in person to the county board of elections or putting it in the mail.”
Glazer ended the hearing, held via video conference, by stating, “I’ve got to think about it.”
“It’s not an everyday question,” he added. “But I will decide it in due course.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer