‘We’ve seen more litigation than ever before;’ Pa. election coalition expects legal challenges through election day

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The Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition, a coalition of organizations dedicated to helping voters cast their ballot, is preparing for voting hurdles, such as voter intimidation and mail-in ballot challenges, as Election Day approaches.

“We’ve got a litigation team standing by to go into court to address those,” Witold Walczak, legal director of ACLU of Pennsylvania, said.

In a virtual press conference on Thursday, coalition partners addressed possible issues that voters could face through Nov. 3. They are looking at potential voter intimidation, illegal challenges at polling places, and legal provocations to delay vote counts, according to Walczak.

“A lot of the problems are addressed by just calling the election officials or calling the elections department solicitor and then the problem gets fixed,” Walczak said.

However, the coalition is prepared to escalate concerns, if they persist. In fact, they have already begun this process.

“We’re not starting in a couple of days, we’ve seen more litigation, more important litigation, earlier litigation than we’ve ever seen before. There have been over 20 lawsuits filed here in Pennsylvania, covering mostly vote by mail, but also things like registration and presence and restrictions on poll watchers,” Walczak said. “We’ve been to the Supreme Court twice now including a decision coming down yesterday.”

The coalition is part of a non-partisan initiative, Election Protection 2020, to make certain Election Day runs smoothly for all Pennsylvania voters.

“We don’t care who people are voting for or who they support. The goal here is to make sure that every voter has an opportunity to cast that ballot safely and then to have that vote counted,” Walczak said.

To accomplish that goal, the growing coalition, consisting of more than 18 organizations, is strengthening its Election Day field program. The coalition plans to mobilize nearly 2,000 volunteers to assist voters at the polls, according to Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

Suzanne Almeida, Interim Executive Director, Common Cause Pennsylvania (Screen Capture).

“This is almost four times the amount of volunteers we had on the ground under the Election Protection banner in 2018,” Almeida said.

These volunteers will be mainly focused on the 16 counties, mostly located around the state’s metropolitan areas, such as Allegheny, Dauphin and Chester counties. While the volunteers are primarily there to answer voter questions, they are prepared for the prospect of voter intimidation.

“We’re really focusing on de-escalating and harm reduction at polling locations in those 16 counties throughout the state,” Salewa Ogunmefun, civic engagement and political manager of the Center for Popular Democracy, said.

Salewa Ogunmefun, Civic Engagement & Political Manager, Center for Popular Democracy (Screen Capture).

The volunteers will also be coming from the communities that they plan to serve.

“This is a way for the community to help themselves and each other feel comfortable voting,” Elizabeth Alex, chief of organizing and leadership at CASA, a latino and immigrant advocacy organization, said.

Additionally, the coalition also provides the 1-866-OUR-VOTE to assist voters with questions and concerns.

“Voters can call that hotline now. It is being staffed by trained attorneys, who are able to answer voter questions and then escalate more serious issues to an in state command center,” Almeida said.

And with more 750 calls coming in daily, voters already have their fair share of concerns.

“The hotline is ringing off the hook,” Walczak said.

In regards to voter intimidation, the coalition took the time to criticize the conditions of 2020 that have allowed it to be a concern.

“If this happens, it’s so not normal. Folks should not have to walk through whether it’s a National Guard, a police presence, or some self-styled militia in order to access their ballot,” Erin Kramer, executive director of One Pennsylvania, said.

While the coalition is certainly prepared to confront these challenges head on, they have already been in contact with both election officials and law enforcement in regards to ensuring voter protections.

“I am overwhelmed by the responses that we’ve been getting from both election officials and law enforcement personnel. They are thinking about these same issues, everybody is taking this very seriously,” Walczak said.

When it comes to the results of the election, the coalition understands the circumstances. They value accuracy and transparency over speedy results.

“The use of mail-in ballots has been supercharged by a global pandemic,” Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, said. “If an individual county is at the point where they’ve decided to wait until the day after the election to start counting mail ballots. That’s not necessarily a problem. What matters is the counties count the vote transparently.”