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Trump Campaign Draws Rebuke for Surveilling Philadelphia Voters

PHILADELPHIA — The Trump campaign has been videotaping Philadelphia voters while they deposit their ballots in drop boxes, leading Pennsylvania’s attorney general to warn this week that the campaign’s actions fall outside of permitted poll watching practices and could amount to illegal voter intimidation.

The campaign made a formal complaint to city officials on Oct. 16, saying a campaign representative had surveilled voters depositing two or three ballots at drop boxes, instead of only their own. The campaign called the conduct “blatant violations of the Pennsylvania election code,” according to a letter from a lawyer representing the Trump campaign that was reviewed by The New York Times. The campaign included photos of three voters who it claimed were dropping off multiple ballots.

“This must be stopped,” a local lawyer for the Trump campaign, Linda A. Kerns, wrote in the letter, adding that the actions “undermine the integrity of the voting process.”

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns are focused on Pennsylvania, seen as one of the most important swing states in the election and where polls show Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a seven-point lead.

The Trump campaign’s aggressive strategy in Philadelphia suggests its aim is to crack down on people dropping off ballots for family members or anyone else who is not strictly authorized to do so. Ms. Kerns demanded that the names of all voters who had used a drop box in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall on Oct. 14 be turned over to the campaign, and insisted that the city station a staff member around every drop box “at all times.” She also asked for footage from municipal cameras around City Hall.

But city officials rejected the assertion that the voters who had been photographed had necessarily done something improper. The city’s lawyers forwarded the campaign’s complaints to the local district attorney, but did not make a formal referral and cast doubt on the assertions. They also said they do not track which voters use which drop box.

“Third party delivery is permitted in certain circumstances,” Benjamin H. Field, a deputy city solicitor and counsel to the city Board of Elections, wrote in a letter sent to Ms. Kerns on Monday. “The Board cannot agree with your conclusion on the basis of the information you provided. Nor can the Board, in exercising its duties, assume that an individual is violating the Election Code when that person can act as an agent for a voter who required assistance.”

Under Pennsylvania law, voters are allowed to deliver only their own ballots to drop boxes, unless they are assisting a voter with a disability or who otherwise needs assistance. But voting has been upended by the pandemic and many voters are unfamiliar with the rules around drop boxes, which they may be using for the first time.

Earlier this month, a Trump campaign official told The Times that the campaign would be videotaping drop boxes but was only interested in people who were dumping large numbers of ballots — not in those bringing an extra ballot or two. That assertion appears to have been false.

The Trump campaign’s Oct. 16 letter described three voters who had been videotaped by a Trump campaign staff member. One was “wearing a striped baseball cap” and deposited “what appears to be three separate ballots.” Another voter was “a woman wearing a face mask and a long sweater jacket over a yellow shirt” who appeared to put three ballots into the drop box, while a woman “with gold bangles” dropped off what appeared to be two ballots.

“We believe these to be just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms. Kerns wrote. “Without reasonable checks, this behavior continues unabated and with impunity.”

Her letter aligns with a broader strategy by the campaign to amplify relatively minor voting issues to bolster baseless claims by the president that the election is rigged by Democrats against him. The drop box issue could also factor into any challenges brought by the campaign after polls close on Election Day.

The campaign has paid particularly close attention to Philadelphia. Its Election Day operations across the country are led by Michael Roman, a Philadelphia native who cut his teeth in city politics and who has made numerous public statements seeking to undermine public confidence in the election, as has President Trump. Mr. Roman previously ran a secretive operation for the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch that surveilled and gathered information on liberal adversaries.

In a statement to The Times, the Pennsylvania attorney general, Josh Shapiro, excoriated the campaign’s tactics. “Pennsylvania law permits poll watchers to carry out very discrete and specific duties — videotaping voters at drop boxes is not one of them,” Mr. Shapiro, a Democrat, said. “Our entire system of voting is built on your ballot being private and your choice to vote being a personal one. Depending on the circumstance, the act of photographing or recording a voter casting a ballot could be voter intimidation — which is illegal.”

The Trump campaign did not comment. The campaign has previously argued that it has the right to observe and record activities outside traditional polling sites.

Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia district attorney, Lawrence S. Krasner, said in a statement that the office “is committed to investigating any and all allegations of voter intimidation and harassment,” and expected “that any organized efforts from campaigns will fully comport with Pennsylvania law.”

The drop box episode is not the first time the Trump campaign has clashed with Philadelphia officials.

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Last month, campaign representatives tried to enter a satellite election office in the city in an attempt to monitor with their cellphone cameras voters picking up and filling out mail-in ballots. Philadelphia election officials barred them from entering, saying that laws permitting citizen poll watchers referred only to polling locations, and that a satellite election office was not a polling location.

Matthew Morgan, the Trump campaign’s counsel, rejected this line of reasoning in a recent interview. “They say this is not a polling place,” he said. “To us this sounds absurd, when you can register, get your ballot and vote in that location. So we don’t accept that premise.”

Pennsylvania law also requires poll watchers to be registered, trained and certified. And in a recent video produced by Republican Party officials to help train poll watchers in Pennsylvania, a narrator explicitly states, “Remember in Pennsylvania, poll watchers must observe the vote in a manner that will not obstruct the rights of any voter.”

None of the officials from the Trump campaign who tried to monitor satellite election offices last month had certification. The campaign is currently suing the city to be allowed to station poll watchers in satellite election offices.

This is also not the first time the Trump campaign has sought to use photographs of voters dropping off two or three ballots in Pennsylvania as evidence of widespread fraud or criminal activity.

Earlier this year, the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Pennsylvania in an attempt to halt state election officials from using drop boxes for the general election in November. As evidence, the campaign provided photographs and video stills of seven people returning more than one ballot to drop boxes in Philadelphia and Elk Counties during the primary this year, although those pictures were not taken by the campaign, lawyers involved in the case said. Instead, they were culled from municipal security cameras, newspaper articles and social media.

One of the pictures Republicans highlighted showed a Black man wearing a hat and sweatshirt bearing the logo of the Philadelphia Water utility, who was photographed putting two ballots in a drop box. In another photograph, a Black woman wearing Nike sneakers and a plaid shirt was shown depositing two ballots in a drop box. A white man in a third photograph — a post from an Instagram account — appears to be holding up two ballots near a drop box, but it is not clear whether he is the only voter present.

The Trump campaign lost the lawsuit, with Judge Nicholas Ranjan dismissing the photographs, noting that “it is undisputed that during the primary election, some county boards believed” it was “appropriate to allow voters to deliver ballots on behalf of third parties.”

The evidence presented to Philadelphia authorities last week, Mr. Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general, noted, was similar to the evidence they saw in the lawsuit.

“Similar material, photos and videos were provided by the Trump Campaign during our case in federal court and were insufficient in providing proof of voter fraud or any legal basis to do away with drop boxes,” he said. “Trump’s case was dismissed on all claims.”

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