(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
ALLENTOWN — A group of 21 organizations, led by the ACLU, sent a letter to Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin on Thursday, asking him to reconsider his plan to physically monitor drop-off boxes for mail-in ballots, saying it “appears to cross the line into unlawful harassment and intimidation of voters.”
In response, Martin called the group’s complaints “exaggerated and overstated.”
“As district attorney, I have the authority under the election code to investigate any misconduct or violation of the law,” he said. “I think it’s very ironic that the ACLU and some of the local politicians are criticizing me for what the law says.”
He pointed out that an investigation by his office showed that there were at least 288 cases last fall involving people placing more than one ballot in a drop box.
“People ought to follow the law,” he said.
No-excuse, mail-in ballots remain legal in Pennsylvania – even as Senate Republicans in Harrisburg have moved to eliminate ballot drop-off boxes, and the fate of Act 77, which allowed no-excuse ballots, is in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The ACLU letter follows Martin’s April 26 announcement that county detectives would be monitoring the county’s five ballot drop-off locations either in person or via video surveillance recordings.
Persons caught dropping off more than one ballot could face fines of up to $2,500 and imprisonment for up to two years or both, Martin said in the release.
The letter was written by Marian K. Schneider, senior voting rights policy counsel for the ACLU in Pennsylvania. Other signers include Common Cause Pennsylvania, Disability Rights Pennsylvania and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
Schneider said the group is considering taking legal action against Martin but is holding off to see how he responds to the letter.
The group took issue with several statements and actions by Martin, saying that in combination they create an atmosphere of intimidation that could be construed as being illegal.
One of the main issues is Martin’s plan to have detectives personally monitor the county’s five drop-off sites, which began accepting ballots on Monday.
The letter referred to the detectives as being armed and said “the physical presence of law enforcement creates an unacceptable risk of inappropriate confrontation as voters are attempting to complete their vote by-mail transaction.”
Reviewing video recordings should be sufficient, the letter said.
Martin disputed the letter’s characterization of his detectives. He said that detectives would be in plain clothes, with their weapons not visible. They would be unobtrusive and would only approach someone if they saw them deposit more than one ballot.
“We’re not going to intimidate anybody,” he said.
Martin said anyone who is worried about drop-off boxes has the option to mail theirs in.
“They can go to the post office and not be subject to anything,” he said.
Besides concerns about surveillance, the letter said Martin overstated the law when he said that a person may only drop off one ballot – “their own.”
Under Pennsylvania law, the letter said, people with disabilities that render them unable to drop off a ballot can designate another person to do so by filling out and signing a form.
The letter states the threat of prosecution itself could constitute intimidation under the federal Civil Rights and Voting acts.
The letter also states that Martin’s letter to the Lehigh County Board of Elections recommending that language be placed on drop off boxes warning of prosecution could also be viewed as a form of intimidation.
Currently, the boxes state that third-party return of ballots is prohibited unless assisting a disabled voter or an emergency absentee voter.
The letter called on Martin to stop having detectives personally monitor drop-off boxes and to refrain from saying that only one person may drop off a ballot.
Martin would not comment on the ACLU’s request. He also would not comment on the status of any drop-box monitoring that is going on, but described the monitoring of both videos and physical drop-boxes taking place periodically.
“It’s not going to be intrusive,” he said.
Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers Allentown and the Lehigh Valley for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. She wrote this story for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a politics newsletter, where this story first appeared. Follow her on Twitter @KMReinhard.
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