A lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party of Pennsylvania could define whether Lawrence County's mail-in ballots will be counted in the fall general election should they not be submitted inside a secrecy envelope.
The Democratic Party filed the suit July 10 in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania against Kathy Boockvar as secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and against county boards of elections statewide. The suit seeks to change some rules on voting in time for the November presidential election, and it also proposes an extension on mail-in ballot deadlines.
One of the changes proposed in the filing is the counting of all ballots, including any mail-in ballots not submitted in secrecy envelopes.
The non-counting of ballots without secrecy envelopes was the only issue in the Democrats' lawsuit that came up in Lawrence County, and possibly originated here, county solicitor Thomas W. Leslie said. Other issues raised in the suit, which don't specifically pertain to local issues, include inadequate drop-off sites for mail-in ballots, extending the ballot deadlines to count those postmarked on Election Day, and upholding the requirement that voters can only be poll watchers in the counties where they live.
The Democratic lawsuit specifically cites Lawrence County's election board as an example of one that in the past election did not count ballots received outside of secrecy envelopes.
That was a matter of contest recently in the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas, when the Democratic State Committee filed a petition seeking to have 446 ballots counted from the June 2 primary election that the board of elections had set aside because the identity of the voter was compromised.
But the objection was withdrawn by the committee's attorney, Jason Medure, around July 10 before a judge could rule on it. That was around the same time the state Democratic Party filed its statewide complaint in commonwealth court.
Lawrence County director of elections Ed Allison had said in a court hearing that those ballots are preserved in a secure area.
The lawsuit filed with the state court against the boards of elections of all 67 counties names Lawrence County as one of the counties that did not count those ballots because the voter has a right to privacy.
It states that during the primary, several county boards, including specifically the Lawrence County Board (of elections), in the canvass of mail-in and/or absentee ballots that were marked and returned by voters, refused to count ballots that were returned to the board without privacy envelopes. Those voters placed their ballots in the outer mailing envelopes.
A total of 446 mail-in ballots remain uncounted in Lawrence County from the primary. Allison explained in a court hearing that the ballots were set aside because they were not secured as to the identities of the voters.
The lawsuit contends that boards of elections should be required to contact the voters and provide them with an opportunity to cure the defects. It also expressed the need for boards of elections to allow imperfectly completed envelopes to be corrected.
"Lawrence County followed the law," Leslie commented about the section of the lawsuit addressing the "naked ballots," those submitted without the secrecy envelopes.
"The Legislature put that rule in there to protect these ballots," Leslie said. "Then all of a sudden, the secretary of state's office sent out a directive saying this is how you get around the law, and talk to your solicitor.
"Right or wrong, the law says what it says, but if the law is incorrect, the courts or the legislature have to change it. We just followed rules."
Had the Democratic committee not withdrawn its initial lawsuit in Lawrence County, "we'd have known the answer," he said, and the judge's ruling would have solved the problem.
He views submitting the ballot without a secrecy envelope the same as a voter making a mistake on the ballot while voting at the polls.
'It's a mistake on your ballot. You can't get your vote back at the polls," he said.
The drop box issue for mail-in ballots is not a problem that Lawrence County had, he said. A box was positioned outside the courthouse because of COVID-19 and "it was under the watchful eye of the election board."
The ballots were either in the hands of the U.S. Mail Service or the election board, he said.
Leslie added, "but I don't think voting by mail is a very good idea at this time. Voting on paper ballots in the polling place is a much more secure way of voting. You get to see who the person is, you have to sign and get your ballot.
"The vote needs to be as pure as possible, and to me that means going to the polls and voting," he said, noting, "I think the mail is very untrustworthy for voting, because that's one of the most important things we do."
Leslie explained that the non-counting of ballots without the privacy envelopes was not intended to keep anyone's vote from counting.
"But if you put all these safeguards on and then put them in the mail, you take all those safeguards away. That's what my problem is with it," he said. "Just follow the directions. What do you think that envelope's in there for?
"I voted by mail just to see how it was done," he said.
He pointed out that the state lawsuit, and another contrary federal lawsuit filed by the campaign committee of President Donald J Trump, need to be decided relatively soon.
"There are too many big questions about mail-in ballots here," Leslie said. "If you don't fix them, how are you going to have an election? I don't care what the decision is, but tell us. Don't say to contact your solicitor. Make it clear in the law or let the judge tell us."