Group led by Stephen Miller, Mark Meadows sues Lehigh Co. over ballot drop-off boxes

For second time in a year, county finds itself in lawsuit over ballots

By: - September 12, 2022 9:55 am
The Whitehall Township Municipal Building, shown on May 9, was one of five locations for ballot drop-off boxes in Lehigh County (Photo by Donna Fisher/Armchair Lehigh Valley).

(Photo by Donna Fisher/Armchair Lehigh Valley).

By Robert H. Orenstein

A legal advocacy group led by former high-ranking members of the Trump administration sued Lehigh County election officials to ensure that drop-off ballot boxes are properly used.

The lawsuit asks Lehigh County Court to order the officials to follow state law and ensure that a person drops off only one ballot, unless authorized to deliver another for someone else. The county should do that, the suit says, by stationing people to monitor activity at its five ballot box locations.

The lawsuit cites county District Attorney Jim Martin’s investigation earlier this year that determined, based on video surveillance, at least 288 people deposited multiple ballots in the November 2021 election. The investigation was prompted by a complaint from the Lehigh County Republican Committee.  Three weeks before the May 17 primary, Martin, a Republican, announced that he would deploy county detectives and video surveillance of the five ballot box locations to make sure people didn’t turn in more than one ballot without authorization.

The court filing mentioned that Martin’s action “achieved its goal as there were no reported cases of third-party delivery of ballots.”  Martin did not respond Friday to a request for comment about the accuracy of the lawsuit’s statement.

America First Legal Foundation – led by Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser to President Trump, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff – filed the lawsuit Sept. 1 on behalf of four county voters, Sean Gill, Robert Smith, Tim Ramos and Jackie Rivera, all of Allentown.

Defendants are the county Election Board, comprising county Executive Phillips Armstrong, Jennifer Allen and Dennis Nemes. Other defendants are Timothy Benyo, the county’s top election official and chief clerk of the Election Board, and Diane Gordian, the board’s deputy chief clerk. Benyo said he cannot comment on pending litigation. Armstrong did not respond to a request for comment.

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In a statement posted to the group’s website, Miller, the foundation’s president, said, “As a civil rights organization, America First Legal is committed to fighting for free, fair and secure elections in America. Election integrity is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. The illegal drop box scheme in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, violates state law — undermining the franchise for lawful citizen voters.”

America First Legal Foundation did not respond to a question about why it chose to file a lawsuit against Lehigh County when many other counties in Pennsylvania also use ballot drop-off boxes.

The group asked the court to order that:

  • Boxes be placed inside a building and accessible only during regular business weekday hours. (Only one of the five drop-box locations, in the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown, has been available 24/7.)
  • The boxes be monitored by people to ensure that the law is followed.
  • The county Election Board not count void and invalid ballots in all future elections.

Lehigh County Court set a hearing for the case at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Democracy Docket, a voting rights group that first reported the lawsuit, also said that the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans filed a motion to intervene in the case and oppose the lawsuit.

In 2019, a new state law, passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature, expanded no-excuse, mail-in voting to all registered voters. That option first was used in the April 2020 Pennsylvania presidential primary. Some counties also set up secure boxes in different locations – generally local government offices – for people to deposit their ballots rather than mail them.

The law requires that people deliver only one ballot, unless authorized. Doing so could lead to fines and penalties not to exceed $2,500 or imprisonment for up to two years,

Republican state lawmakers, many of whom voted in favor of the law, have since sought to invalidate mail-in voting after the 2020 presidential election when Trump claimed, despite evidence to the contrary, that he, not Joe Biden, won the state and its critical Electoral College votes.

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Democrats tend to use mail-in ballots much more often than Republicans. In the May 17 primary, for example, Democrats accounted for about three-fourths of the mail-in ballots, according to state statistics.

Martin’s decision to monitor ballot boxes in the primary was denounced by Acting Commonwealth Secretary Leigh Chapman and 21 advocacy groups, including the ACLU.

Chapman wrote to Martin that, while she also wants to see election laws are followed, his plans “may have the effect of intimidating eligible voters and deterring their authorized agents from legally casting votes.”

At the time, Martin said people must follow the law and that his detectives would not intimidate any voter.

This is the second high-profile lawsuit regarding the county Election Board and ballots. In a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, Lehigh County judicial candidate David Ritter tried to block the counting of mail-in ballots where voters failed to mark a date on the ballot’s outside envelope, as required by state law.

All 257 ballots in question were received on time for the November 2021 election. A federal appeals court ruled that the omission of the date was a minor oversight and should not invalidate the ballots. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, clearing the way for the county Election Board in June – seven months after the election – to count those undated ballots. Ritter saw his 71-vote lead in the race for a third seat on the court evaporate as Zachary Cohen won by five votes. In July, Ritter asked the Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision. The court has not decided whether to consider the request.

Robert H. Orenstein is a reporter for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a political newsletter, where this story first appeared.

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