Indiana County officials on Wednesday joined their counterparts in several other southwestern Pennsylvania counties in the defense of a lawsuit challenging the vote-by-mail system introduced in the June 2 primary.
This story edited at 5 p.m. to correct the voter turnout and participation percentage figures of the June 2 primary.
The county board of commissioners retained Pittsburgh law firm Babst, Calland, Clements and Zomnir to represent the Indiana County election board against a lawsuit jointly filed by President Donald Trump’s re-election committee, U.S. Rep Glenn Thompson, R-Centre County — who represents Indiana County in Congress — three of his Republican House colleagues (John Joyce, Mike Kelly and Guy Reschenthaler) and the national Republican Party organization.
The lawsuit names the election officials in Indiana and all 66 other counties and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, and asks the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania to force changes to the system for collecting and counting ballots sent by mail.
The Trump campaign, the congressmen and the GOP claim in the suit that local election officials violated the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions and state laws by broadening the eligibility for voters to cast ballots by mail last month.
Officials relaxed absentee voting rules to allow anyone to vote from home without providing a reason at the same time that the straight-party voting option was stricken from ballots.
The result, according to the suit, was a “hazardous, hurried and illegal” roll-out of mail-in voting during the primary. The Republicans said the system now gives “fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.”
The changes, triggered by COVID-19 pandemic suppression efforts including social distancing and stay-at-home orders, prompted an extreme swing in balloting on June 2.
Indiana County courthouse officials said 42 percent of the votes (7,314 of 17,417) were sent by mail and the remainder were cast at the county’s 68 voting precinct stations.
The overall turnout of 40.1 percent was less then the last corresponding presidential election year primary, in 2016, when 43.5 percent of registered voters went to the polls. But it was far more than the 2012 primary turnout of 22 percent, when the major party nominees had virtually been decided before the Pennsylvania primary, as was the case this year.
The lawsuit charges that election boards in the counties “have inexplicably chosen a path that jeopardizes election security and will lead — and has already led — to the disenfranchisement of voters, questions about the accuracy of election results, and ultimately chaos” ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, according to The Associated Press.
Indiana County Commissioners Michael Keith and Sherene Hess voted to retain the law firm at a rate of $73.33 an hour — a share of the overall fee being charged to a group now numbering 15 counties in the region.
Commissioner Robin Gorman was absent from the meeting Wednesday, just days after the death of her husband, Kay Gorman.
County solicitor Matthew Budash said a similar suit also has been filed in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. He didn’t comment on the merits of the case as he brought the recommendation to hire Babst, Calland, Clements and Zomnir, or “BCCZ,” to represent Indiana County.
A spokeswoman for Boockvar, a Democrat, declined comment about the litigation, when it was filed in early June, as did the head of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, whose members administer elections, the AP reported.
The leader of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party called the lawsuit an effort to suppress votes as a campaign tactic, noting Democrats far outpaced Republicans in getting their voters to apply for mail-in ballots ahead of the primary.
“Statewide vote-by-mail was a bipartisan proposal passed by Republican majorities in Harrisburg,” said Sincer￩ Harris, the state Democrats’ executive director.
As the coronavirus pandemic prompted the state to delay its April primary, more than 1.8 million voters applied for a mail-in or absentee ballot. They returned nearly 1.5 million of them, according to the state’s elections office.
In Indiana County, officials said 8,275 voters requested absentee ballots and 11.6 percent didn’t send them in.
The suit argues that the new procedures were accompanied by some changes that were not legal, including in about 20 counties where the plaintiffs say voters could drop off completed ballots at collection sites without sending them or handing them directly to county elections offices.
According to an Associated Press report, the plaintiffs want an order to prevent counting ballots that lack secrecy envelopes or that have certain marks on them. They also want poll watchers to be able to monitor vote counting outside the counties where they live — and to be able to observe counting of all mail-in ballots.