Trump campaign is warned about videotaping Philly voters dropping off mail ballots

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People wait in line outside Philadelphia City Hall, where the main elections office, along with new satellite elections office, allow people to request and submit mail ballots in person. - TIM TAI/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — President Donald Trump’s campaign spent some time last week surveilling and videotaping voters dropping off mail ballots at Philadelphia City Hall, prompting some swift pushback from Pennsylvania’s top prosecutor.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in a statement, warned Trump that his campaign’s actions are not covered by the state’s Election Code provisions for poll watching.

“Our entire system of voting is built on your ballot being private and your choice to vote being a personal one,” Shapiro said in a statement to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Depending on the circumstance, the act of photographing or recording a voter casting a ballot could be voter intimidation — which is illegal.”

Shapiro’s statement mirrors comments he made to The New York Times on Thursday for an article about the Trump campaign videotaping voters in Philadelphia.

Linda Kerns, a Philadelphia lawyer representing Trump’s campaign, informed the City Commissioners last Friday by letter that a “campaign representative” had videotaped three voters at City Hall on Oct. 14 as they placed more than one ballot in a drop box there.

Kerns, who did not respond to requests for comment, wrote that two of the people deposited three envelopes in the drop box while the third deposited two envelopes.

“As these incidents represent only a few voters, in a limited time period on Oct. 14, 2020, we believe these to be just the tip of the iceberg,” Kerns wrote to the commissioners, who oversee elections in the city. “Without reasonable checks, this behavior continues unabated and with impunity.”

Kerns said the Trump campaign “demands” that use of the drop boxes stop unless a staffer from the Board of Elections is monitoring them. She also asked for a list of all voters who used the City Hall drop box on Oct. 14 and that any surveillance video of that location from Sept. 29 to Nov. 3 be preserved.

The Trump campaign threatened to go to court if those demands are not met.

Deputy City Solicitor Benjamin Field responded to Kerns on Monday, writing that “third-party delivery is generally prohibited in Pennsylvania, but voters who require assistance delivering their ballot may appoint an agent to do so.” Fields noted this information is spelled out in the instructions provided with every mail ballot.

“Your letter also asserts that the voters alleged to have delivered multiple ballots have violated the Election Code,” Field wrote on behalf of the Board of Elections. “The Board cannot agree with your conclusion on the basis of the information you provided.”

Field also noted the Board of Elections does not compile lists of voters who use certain drop boxes, as she requested.

He told Kerns that the Board of Elections forwarded her information to the Philadelphia district attorney’s office and suggested she do the same with “any additional information relevant to this.”

Pennsylvania’s expansion of mail ballot use, approved by the state General Assembly last year, came about five months before the coronavirus pandemic created overwhelming demand. More than 2.9 million voters in the state have requested mail ballots as of Thursday — 64% of them Democrats and 25% of them Republicans. More than 1.3 million ballots have already been returned.

Trump’s campaign has filed a flurry of lawsuits, seeking to shape how and when voters can cast ballots in Pennsylvania. The intense focus reflects Pennsylvania’s role as a key swing state, where former Vice President Joe Biden leads by 4.9%, according to an average of polling compiled Thursday by Real Clear Politics.

Kerns sued the city earlier this month on behalf of the Trump campaign, claiming Republican poll watchers had been asked to leave satellite elections offices where voters can request and drop off mail ballots.

The Trump campaign at that point had no poll watchers registered with elections officials, as required by state law, and the city said the offices were not polling places.

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge sided with the city in that matter. Trump’s campaign has appealed to state Commonwealth Court.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer