Trump campaign cites Republican candidate as proof of mail-in voter fraud in Pa.

(Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

*This story was updated to accurately reflect the punishment for voting twice at 8:16 a.m. 9/7/20.

President Donald Trump has spent months falsely claiming in Tweets and at rallies that mail-in balloting is ripe for fraud; fraud that would then allow Democrats to steal the 2020 election.

But searching for evidence to back up the claims in a federal court challenge to Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot law, his campaign is instead using a Republican state House candidate as evidence of wrongdoing.

The candidate, Ralph Shicatano, said he’s done nothing wrong by voting in person after requesting a mail-in ballot. But the campaign included his circumstance in a document, referenced in a campaign official’s deposition, as “evidence of duplicitous voting that occurred or was attempted during the primary election.”

The deposition was delivered in a civil rights lawsuit, Trump vs. Boockvar, filed in the U.S. District Court in Western Pennsylvania by the president’s reelection campaign against Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who administers the commonwealth’s elections. Pennsylvania’s 67 counties also are named as defendants.

The suit is on hold until Oct. 5 to wait for state courts to settle if ballot drop off boxes, extended mail deadlines and out-of-county poll watchers are allowable, among other changes to state election law.

But the case drew widespread attention when it was filed for alleging that Pennsylvania’s state and local election administrators are violating residents’ civil rights in running insecure and inconsistent elections. The lawsuit also alleged widespread voter fraud.

The federal judge overseeing the case asked for the campaign to release evidence of its allegations in early August. Later that month, the Trump campaign released a 524-page, partially redacted document that cited a handful of media reports but showed “zero instances” of fraud by mail in ballots, according to The Intercept.

In the Aug. 20 deposition, Kahlil Williams, an attorney representing Delaware County in the Philadelphia suburbs, pressed Trump campaign operative James Fitzpatrick on the existence of voter fraud in the Keystone State.

Specifically, Williams asks Fitzpatrick, Trump’s Pennsylvania director of election day operations, about a bullet point that cites a Delaware County voter who “received [a] mail-in ballot but voted on the machine at the polls.”

Shicatano was that voter. He’s a Republican candidate for the 161st House District, which  includes Swarthmore, Aston, Brookhaven and parts of Ridley Township, among others. 

Shicatano was unopposed in the primary, and will face Democratic Rep. Leanne Krueger in the November general.

The deposition was unclear on whether Shicatano had voted twice, or simply voted by voting machine when he should have voted by provisional ballot, as mandated by state law.

But either way, Fitzgerald said in the deposition the incident was an example of voter fraud. 

What postal delays and lawsuits mean for mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania

Shicatano told the Capital-Star that he did request a mail-in ballot, but then decided he wanted to vote in person.

When he arrived at his polling place, he expected to vote by a provisional ballot. But the poll book did not list him as having a mail-in ballot, so he voted with a machine.

“I actually am the one who highlight[ed] the potential for a double vote,” Shicatano said. “I was just pointing out the error in the system, and I wanted people to recognize that.”

Shicatano did not vote by mail, and said he still has his incomplete mail-in ballot. He added that someone “less ethical” might have gamed the system and voted twice, so he has concerns about fraud in the 2020 election.

Fitzpatrick, a former campaign aide to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016, said in the deposition that he was made aware of Shicatano in an email exchange with Delaware County Republican Party’s executive director, Carol Miller. The Delaware County Republican Party did not reply to a request for comment.

Besides Shicatano, Fitzpatrick’s deposition revealed no new evidence of fraud. In an email, the Trump campaign provided some further examples, echoing bullet points Fitzpatrick referenced in the deposition. But they relied on scattered media reports from across the state, a public after action report prepared by the Pennsylvania Department of State, and a half dozen examples of fraud or alleged fraud between 1989 and 2017.

“To win this case, the campaign must show that the Democrats’ ridiculous policies dilute votes,” a senior Trump campaign official said in a statement. “The evidence of fraud we produced in our response, along with the legal flaws inherent in the Democrats’ policies that allow for double voting and standardless drop boxes, clearly demonstrate that vote dilution.”

Fitzpatrick said he had also been in touch with some other county GOP parties, such as in Allegheny County and Philadelphia. But elsewhere in the deposition, Fitzpatrick did not reveal any new evidence to prove voter fraud in the June primary.

Instead, he pointed to a June story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about 40 out of 348,740 Philadelphia primary participants voted twice, both both by mail and on a machine. All but four were caught early enough to avoid a double count. 

In the deposition, Fitzpatrick also said that a county sending a voter two mail-in ballots “may be able to be described as voter fraud.” In an email, the Trump campaign provided an example from Lycoming County in north central Pennsylvania, where 61 voters received up to eight mail-in ballots due to a software error.

Fitzpatrick  added that state law could create an opportunity for ballot harvesting, or when third parties organize to pick up paper ballots from voters’ homes and drop them off at election offices.

Ballot harvesting is illegal under state law. According to a Department of State report, just 36 out of 1.5 million mail-in ballots cast in the June 2020 primary were illegally delivered by someone other than the voter, such as by a spouse or an elder care facility administrator. But the Trump campaign is also alleging that Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government group, harvested votes with a mobile “voteswagon.”

The campaign lawsuit alleging fraud from potential double votes comes as Trump himself seemed to encourage his supporters to vote twice.

Trump told a North Carolina TV station Wednesday that voters who vote by email “are going to have to check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates then they won’t be able to do that. So, let them send it in and let them go vote.”

The White House walked back the comments soon after, claiming Trump was encouraging verification. Voters in Pennsylvania can check the status of their mail-in ballot here.

*Voting twice is a third degree felony in Pennsylvania, punishable with a $15,000 fine and up to seven years in prison.

The Trump campaign’s lawsuit is one of at least five to restrict access to the ballot box in key swing states, according to the Washington Post. Trump himself has also repeatedly questioned the safety of mail-in voting, although it has been used to securely run elections in red and blue states.

As president, Trump also assembled a task force on voter fraud, but it disbanded without finding any evidence.

Democrats, voting and civil rights advocates, and some local officials have pushed back on the suits as attacks on the democratic process.

At a county council meeting this week, Delaware County Solicitor William Martin said the deposition’s slim evidence “demonstrates this litigation is harassment, its voter suppression, and continues to force this county and other counties across the state to waste money.”

He estimated that election litigation from the Trump campaign and another conservative group had cost county taxpayers $50,000.

Trump has a history of using litigation, even suits he might not win, as a “scare tactic,” to force opponents to spend time and money in court, according to WNYC radio.

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