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Board of elections approves drop boxes

During an emergency meeting Sept. 24 at the Lehigh County Government Center, Allentown, members of the board of elections approved a motion to set up five drop boxes around the county for voters to deposit mail-in ballots for the general election, Nov. 3.

County Executive Phillips Armstrong and election board member Doris Glaesmann voted to approve the drop box plan. Election board member Jane Ervin was absent from the meeting, which was scheduled on short notice.

Armstrong noted a Sept. 17 ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court permitted the use of drop boxes for ballot submission.

“Because of that, we have spent Friday, Saturday, Monday and even into Tuesday formulating a policy we thought would solve the problems and meet all the requirements for drop boxes,” Armstrong said, adding the boxes had already been purchased by the county.

Armstrong also discussed the security parameters that will accompany the drop box usage.

“They must be in an area where there is surveillance,” he said. “They must be in an area where they are secured and attached to something permanent.”

Armstrong said a board-certified individual would be required to empty the drop boxes every 24 hours, and he emphasized the process will be handled in a secure fashion.

“They must follow all kinds of rules that went with this. And it will be brought in the same way we would be bringing in votes the night of the election,” he said.

One drop box will be placed in a local municipal building in each of Lehigh County’s five commissioner districts, which Armstrong called the “fairest and best way” of enacting the plan.

District drop boxes will be available for use during normal municipal business hours, with the exception of the District 4 box at the Lehigh County Government Center, which will be the only one available 24/7.

Drop boxes will be located in the following areas:

• Catasauqua Borough Municipal Complex, 90 Bridge St., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

• Emmaus Borough Office, 28 S. Fourth St., 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday

• Lehigh County Government Center, 17 S. Seventh St., open 24 hours a day, seven days a week

• North Whitehall Township Building, 3256 Levans Road, 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

• Upper Macungie Township Building, 8330 Schantz Road, 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

“This does bring about much greater accessibility to the voters of Lehigh County,” Armstrong said. “We have gotten a lot of people who are very, very worried about the United States mail.”

He was referring to ongoing national concerns about the U.S. Postal Service’s suitability to deliver mail-in ballots during the election.

“We’re still saying the mail is a great way of doing it. That’s not a problem, but for those who don’t want to use the mail, now they don’t actually have to come to the government building in person,” Armstrong said.

Regarding an expected installation date, Armstrong said he would like to have the boxes in place by the last two weeks of October.

Asked whether the boxes will be used in 2021 or during future elections, Armstrong said he would like to get through this election first, see how this works and see if we need them.

Additionally, the board voted to cancel some of the election office’s extended hours of operations, which Chief Clerk of Elections Tim Benyo said had been enacted before the Supreme Court’s drop-box ruling to offer voters an extended window to drop off their ballots.

Benyo said the election office had extended its Monday through Friday hours for the last two weeks of October and also added weekend hours for the last two Saturdays before the election.

He asked the board to change the weekday hours back to the office’s standard hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Both Armstrong and Glaesmann voiced their preference to keeping the extended Saturday hours. Benyo clarified the weekend operations were already scheduled to proceed as planned.

The board members voted 2-0 to approve the election office’s weekday hours would be changed to 8 a.m.-4 p.m., starting Oct. 19 and to keep the 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday hours Oct. 24 and 31.

The board of elections also discussed the ballot return policy for the general election.

Benyo asked how the drop boxes would be affected by ballot return rules, noting before the Supreme Court’s ruling, “absentee ballots were the only ballots that could be brought back by someone other than the voter.”

He added mail-in ballots must be submitted by voters themselves on the “honor system.”

Deputy Solicitor Sarah Murray said the question of ballot submissions was not specifically addressed by the court.

“So, we need to move forward with the presumption of the prior requirement, that the voter is the one who is expected to place it back in the box for mail-in ballots,” Murray said.

However, she said absentee ballot voters who are sick or disabled may fill out forms to allow another individual to submit their ballots.

Benyo also emphasized the importance of filling out mail-in ballots, noting the Supreme Court ruling had clarified the term “naked ballots,” or ballots returned solely in the mailing envelope.

“The law states the ballot must be filled out, placed in the secrecy envelope, then placed in the return envelope,” Benyo explained, adding the unmarked secrecy envelope is meant to shield a voter’s ballot choices from others.

He said if naked ballots are received, “they are to be set aside and not counted.”

Benyo and Armstrong also emphasized voters must sign the designated spot on the outermost envelope to return their ballots and have their votes counted.

PRESS PHOTO BY SARIT LASCHINSKY During an emergency meeting of the board of elections Sept. 24 at the Lehigh County Government Center, Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong reads off the locations of five ballot drop boxes that will be installed in the districts of Lehigh County.