A Lehigh County ballot box is seen at the Whitehall Township Municipal building before the May 17 primary (Photo by Donna Fisher/Armchair Lehigh Valley).
By Robert H. Orenstein
Lehigh County announced Tuesday it will not deploy ballot drop-off boxes at five designated locations while awaiting a decision in a lawsuit that seeks to require the county to station in-person monitors at the boxes.
The case is before Lehigh County Court Judge Thomas Capehart, who is expected to decide soon.
“Lehigh County is unable to deploy ballot drop boxes throughout the county at this time, until the decision is rendered and, depending on the decision and further action in the case, deployment may be delayed,” the county said in its announcement.
The drop boxes were scheduled to be available Monday of next week.
Injecting another level of uncertainty among voters and election officials as the Nov. 8 election nears, the state and national Republican Party organizations this week sued Pennsylvania over its directive that counties count undated mail-in ballots.
The lawsuit over drop boxes in Lehigh County was filed Sept. 1 by America First Legal – an advocacy group led by Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser to President Trump, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff.
That lawsuit said monitoring drop-off boxes will ensure that no one deposits more than one ballot, unless authorized to do so, as required by state law. The lawsuit also asked 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, was scheduled to be available 24/7.)
Four county voters are plaintiffs in the case: Sean Gill, a former Upper Macungie supervisor and former chairman of the county GOP; Robert E. Smith Jr., the Republican candidate for state House from the 22nd District; Tim Ramos, who lost bids for Allentown mayor in 2019 and 2021; and Jackie Rivera, secretary of the county GOP and unsuccessful candidate for county commissioner in 2021.
Defendants are members of the county Election Board and election office supervisors.
In its statement, the county noted that ballots can be returned in person to the Board of Elections office at the Lehigh County Government Center, 17 S. 7th St., Allentown, weekdays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Ballots can also be mailed using the return envelope with prepaid postage.
America First Legal also filed a lawsuit Sept. 15 against Chester County over the same issue. That case is also pending.
Meanwhile, another court case, which coincidentally originated in Lehigh County – this one over whether to count mail-in ballots missing a required handwritten date on the outer envelope – was the impetus for the challenge by the state and national GOP. That case involved a county judicial election from 2021.
A federal appeals court earlier this year said Lehigh County could count undated mail-in ballots, saying that such a minor oversight by voters should not disqualify their votes.
But last week, a U.S. Supreme Court order declared as moot the appellate court decision because the 2021 judicial election had been certified.
That prompted the Gov. Wolf administration to issue its directive that counties count undated ballots, saying the Supreme Court order didn’t change anything. The administration cited a state Commonwealth Court decision that also said undated ballots should be counted.
House Republican leaders last week urged the administration to separate undated ballots because of possible legal challenges.
Legal observers told Armchair Lehigh Valley that the dispute over undated ballots could lead to other lawsuits.
That’s exactly what happened. On Sunday, the national and state Republican Party organizations sued Pennsylvania in the state Supreme Court. They argued that the recent U.S. Supreme Court order requires that undated ballots not be counted.
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