Sheriff’s deputies, election office personnel to collect mail-in ballots
By SARIT LASCHINSKY
Special to The Press
During an emergency meeting Oct. 15 at the Lehigh County Government Center, the county Board of Elections voted the authorize sworn members of the Sheriff’s Office and Election Office to retrieve mail-in ballots from the five municipal drop boxes within the county.
Deputy Solicitor Sarah Murray said both groups would be authorized to collect ballots.
“As opposed to just one or two people, then we are covered in the event of sickness, vacation,” Murray said.
“We don’t want to be in a bind where we need to have an emergency meeting to appoint someone new.”
Chief Clerk of Elections Tim Benyo and county Executive Phillips Armstrong said the proposal promoted ballot security, as well as the safety of individuals performing the pickups.
“We felt strongly as the administration department that would be the most reliable, the one that would be secure, the integrity of the office of the sheriff would ensure to the voters this would take place,” Armstrong said.
Murray said the drop boxes, at the Catasauqua Borough Municipal Complex, Emmaus Borough Office, Lehigh County Government Center, North Whitehall Township Building and Upper Macungie Township Building, would be installed Oct. 16 for immediate use.
Murray said deputies or election office staff are required to retrieve ballots every 24 hours Monday-Friday and, in addition to the regular pickup on Election Day, deputies would retrieve ballots when each municipal building closes for the day.
The exact times were not disclosed for security purposes.
Three deputies will make the daily collections to secure both new pickups and guard already-collected ballots.
Murray said drop boxes will have tamper-proof seals, which will be replaced and recorded during every pickup to enhance security.
Bags of collected ballots will be marked with tamper-proof seals which will not be removed until the ballots are returned to the Elections Office.
Benyo said voters will be able to see when their ballots are received by the office.
County Solicitor Thomas Caffrey said workers will also confirm the number of ballots received with the recorded number of ballots picked up by workers and deputies.
“There are lots of security measures in place, besides having the deputies themselves, the drop boxes and bags will also be very secure,” Murray said.
Armstrong added the collection procedure is fully compliant with state recommendations.
If voters are unable to deposit their mail-in ballots at the four municipal boxes outside Allentown on Election Day, Benyo said they can still return ballots at the Government Center drop box, the only one open 24 hours a day, until 8 p.m. Nov. 3.
He also said an unvoted mail-in ballot, including all associated materials and envelopes, can be dropped off at a voter’s polling place and be spoiled by a poll worker.
The voter would then have to sign a declaration and the poll book before receiving a paper ballot to vote.
If a voted ballot or an unvoted ballot with missing materials is turned in to be spoiled, the voter must vote provisionally to ensure there is no double voting.
Murray also noted that according to the current state Supreme Court decision, if a mail-in ballot is mailed and postmarked by 8 p.m. Election Day, and it is received by that Friday at 5 p.m., it will also be counted.
The Election Board also addressed policies regarding the correction of minor ballot deficiencies and naked ballots.
These are ballots missing the inner secrecy envelope.
Benyo said a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision “specifically pointed out naked ballots cannot be counted, and it doesn’t give any discretion for the counties to let the voters remedy that issue.
“Once we open the ballot because we can’t see in there to see if it’s in a secrecy envelope or not; if it’s not we have to set it aside and keep it uncounted,” Benyo said. “We cannot let the voter know something is wrong with their ballot and give them the opportunity to change that.”
On the subject of minor deficiencies, such as a missing signature on the outer envelope, Benyo said that in previous elections his office made efforts to contact the affected voters by phone, email or mail, if possible.
“To make sure they get that minor deficiency corrected before we accept the ballot,” Benyo said, asking if the board was willing to continue the policy.
Caffrey also said while the Supreme Court’s decision did not require county boards to “give notice and cure for minor deficiencies,” according to Lehigh County’s interpretation of the language, “You [the Election Board] still have the discretion to allow that.”
The board unanimously approved both policies.
Furthermore, board members also discussed and approved policies regarding incorrectly deposited ballots in other counties and within the municipal buildings.
Benyo said he was in discussion with the Northampton County chief registrar Amy Cozze about county-level policies, noting that several Northampton ballots were mistakenly deposited in Lehigh.
“Assuming the same thing’s going to happen in Northampton County that happened in Lehigh County, we needed to figure out how the chain of custody would work to retrieve those ballots,” Benyo said.
He, Caffrey and the board agreed authorized Lehigh personnel should retrieve ballots from neighboring counties, because, as Benyo stated, “putting that responsibility in the hands of Northampton County puts us at risk.”
“I think what we discussed was that we’re not going to take their ballots and deliver them to Northampton County.
“They’re going to have to send their authorized person here,” Caffrey added.
Earlier, Armstrong stressed Lehigh County voters must deposit their mail-in ballots at a Lehigh County drop box location.
“This has never been done before, so we could see an issue where somebody is passing through our area, sees our drop box, and lives in Easton,” he said. “I think we need to get that really clear that you can only put that vote in a drop box in the county.”
Regarding municipal incorrect deposits, Murray said some of the municipal buildings where ballot boxes are located have boxes for other purposes.
She said the Emmaus location has already found several ballots in the wrong box.
She noted municipal staff were not asked to place the ballots in the correct drop box - as voters must deposit their own ballots - but to notify Lehigh County to have them picked up by deputies during the daily collections, and these ballots would be kept separate from those collected from drop boxes to preserve the chain of custody.
Board member Jane Ervin raised concerns that the misplaced ballots may not be kept secure if in the possession of municipal staff, to which Armstrong asked about contacting the affected voter to remedy the situation.
Board members, Benyo and the solicitors settled on making every effort to contact voters in the event of misplaced ballots and to have them remedy the incorrect deposit. If the voter is unable to be contacted, the ballot will be set aside and not counted.
If contact is made with the voter, Benyo and Murray said the procedure would be to have the first, misplaced ballot voided and issue a second ballot.
“That’s probably the safest way to do it so that they know that it wasn’t tampered with while it was not completely secure,” Benyo said.
“I think we can treat it as someone who made a mistake on their ballot and void … because at the polling place you get three changes to get your ballot correct, and I think if we took that opportunity away from people that would be restricting.”
Caffrey also asked Benyo to make note of which ballots were incorrectly deposited in case of any postelection challenge.
Regarding external surveillance and security for drop boxes, Armstrong said the municipal locations were chosen because “every one of them has a secure camera on these locations, so there will be a camera post.”
Murray said the county is also required to retain the camera footage from all municipalities for 60 days after the ballot certification deadline.
Internal security measures were not publicly disclosed and would be discussed in executive session, which Caffrey said was a recognized exemption under the Sunshine Act.
Ervin also asked about the Election Office’s procedures for opening and counting ballots on Election Day, and noted that there were concerns that in-person results would be announced before all mail-in ballots are counted and completed.
Benyo said the law currently allows precanvassing to begin at 7 a.m. Election Day.
This includes ballot preparation, removal of exterior and security envelopes, and flattening of ballots in preparation of scanning but he said no tabulation is allowed during the process.
“We can’t compile those numbers to get totals so that there are no possibilities of leaking results that could affect the impact or change people’s mind when they vote,” Benyo said, noting tabulation and uploading of results begins at 8 p.m. Election Day and continues until all ballots are counted.
Benyo said all voters in line when polls close at 8 p.m. will be allowed to vote, and any voters in line to drop off a mail-in ballot at a municipal drop-box location will also be allowed to do so, even if the building has closed.
He said mail-in and in-person votes will be counted relatively simultaneously, and noted that statistically, the number of mail-in ballots for Democratic Party members outnumber Republican Party members.
“So yes, you’re going to have a discrepancy on which category the mail ballots are going to go for, and which party the in-person voting,” Benyo said.
He said a fluctuation is to be expected as mail-in ballots are counted.
“As more ballots come in and get reported, you’re going to see the Democratic Party, just by sheer volume, those numbers will go up at a faster rate than the Republicans will,” Benyo said.
He also noted it usually takes around two weeks to compile a “good, confident solid number” and account for all military, provisional and write-in ballots, and that the county had 20 days to report totals to the Department of State.
In an email to The Press on Oct. 19, Lehigh County noted that “Due to a heavy increase of traffic to the Lehigh County Government Center, IBEW 375 has given permission for residents to park their vehicles in their parking lot on the corner of S. 7th and Walnut streets.
“This is an effort to accommodate the increased volume of residents dropping off their ballots while parking their vehicles within walking distance from the Government Center.
“We ask that all residents be respectful when using this space and to safely obey all traffic laws.
“Please be mindful of other drivers and pedestrians when parking.”