ELEPHANT CORNER: GOP Wants Pollwatchers in Satellite Offices

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WHO GETS to see what in which location where votes are cast? In Philadelphia, this, like many other questions, became a matter of fierce partisan contention.

On Sept. 29, the City Commissioners of Philadelphia set up seven satellite offices. The same day, the Trump campaign requested that pollwatchers be permitted in the offices to view but not interfere in with City Commission employees. The commissioners refused the Trump campaign and the campaign asked the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court for relief from the administrative decision of the City Commissioners to block pollwatchers.

The functions of these satellite offices are to expedite the ability of a citizen to apply for a mail-in ballot, verify that that the individual is a qualified voter and to give that person a mail-in ballot. If people want, they can complete the mail-in ballot in this office. They can ask for help in understanding the ballot. Once completing the ballot, they are directed by City Commission employees to a box where they can deposit the ballot.

As people are able to complete a form whether it be on paper or on display on a voting machine, they are voting in my opinion. I should point out the voters complete provisional (paper) ballots in traditional polling places. People in these satellite offices can ask for assistance as a voter can ask for assistance in traditional polling place. However, there the voter in a traditional polling place must fill out an affidavit requesting the help. In the satellite offices, City employees have no obligation to create a similar paper trail. Also, no outside watcher, whether those representing political campaigns or a watchdog group such as the Committee of Seventy, is allowed to observe.

On Oct. 9, Common Pleas Court JUDGE GARY GLAZER issued an order denying pollwatchers permission to be in the satellite offices. He based his decision on his opinion that these were not polling places.

He wrote that the election code references to polling places being in specific geographic locations allocated for certain discrete areas (precincts). Since anyone from any part of the city can go obtain and complete ballots at a satellite office, Glazer says it does not fit into the definition of a polling place.

Glazer also notes that poll watchers in addition to watching voters, they can review the list of voters and the examination of the machines (before and after voting) as well as the canvasing, opening, counting, recounting and recording the ballots. As these activities are not going on in the satellite offices, Gazer opined that these are not voting places. The City Commissioners will allow watchers in their offices after the elections when ballots are open and counted.

The Trump campaign and Pennsylvania GOP believe that if people are being given a ballot and cubicles to complete the ballot, then they are in a polling place. I see no difference, as it relates to the completion of a provisional ballot in a traditional polling place except the Judge of Elections takes the completed ballot and at the end of election night takes it to the City Commissioners. In the satellite offices, the voter deposits the ballot in a box.

The campaign took the case to Commonwealth Court. In a 2-to-1 decision, a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel agreed that the Commonwealth’s election code, which was amended last year to accommodate mail-in voting, makes no mention of pollwatchers being allowed in local election offices. In dissent, Judge Patricia McCullough said the State’s expansion of mail-in voting, which authorized county election boards to accept hand-delivery of ballots, created an ambiguity in the law when it came to pollwatchers and their ability to oversee voting activity.

She said, “I would … conclude that this ambiguity, in order to protect the intent and spirit of the election process, and to preserve the goal of maintaining the integrity of such process, be resolved to recognize that the voting processes occurring at the satellite offices necessitate their recognition as ‘polling places.’”

While the plaintiff in this case is a Republican campaign, they are asking for pollwatchers of all ilk to be permitted to watch people being given a ballot and exercising their right to vote as they complete the form. I hope the legislature clarifies this ambiguity in the election code.

The author is a Republican ward leader in Philadelphia.

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