Republicans have sued to restrict this drop box.  Meet the voters who use it.

Republicans have sued to restrict this drop box. Meet the voters who use it.


ALLENTOWN, Pa. — On the Lehigh County political battleground, a legal group linked to Donald Trump filed a lawsuit to cut the hours of the only 24-hour ballot box, arguing someone might stuff it with fake votes. Vigilantes pledged online to protect him. Poll clerks received anonymous letters: “STOP VOTER FRAUD”.

But on this November evening, there are no citizen guards or sneaky fraudsters at the ballot box in the Lehigh County Government Center, just a janitor wiping the windows. Leaves sliding on the sidewalk. A husky sniffing grass.

“The rhetoric that’s been circulating doesn’t match the reality,” said Geoff Brace, chairman of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners, a registered Democrat. Nationwide investigations have found no evidence of voter fraud that could have influenced an election, and the same is true here. “It’s just a convenience for people,” said local election officer Timothy Benyo, a registered Republican. “It’s not a cheat factory.”

The ballot boxes were not always controversial. When the Republican-controlled Legislature approved mail-in voting in 2019, Pennsylvania’s top Senate Republican called it “the most significant modernization of our election code in decades.” Vote abandonment has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly among Democrats, as Americans seek to avoid crowded polling places.

Yet ahead of the 2020 election, President Donald Trump and right-wing activists claimed without evidence that early voting was rife with cheating, and Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania pushed to tighten the rules. There are five drop boxes now open in Lehigh County. Signs at the 24-hour voting slot at the Government Center warn that dropping anyone else’s ballot without special permission is illegal.

In the lawsuit that a county judge dismissed last month, the America First Legal Foundation, headed by Stephen Miller, senior adviser to Trump and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, cited an investigation by the district attorney who found 288 cases of people casting more than one ballot before the November 2021 election.

Most offenders slipped two, and no one wore more than six. Authorities declined to pursue any charges. “There’s no scary ‘ballot harvesting’ with dump trucks full of extra ballots,” said Benyo, the election official. “They are ordinary people.”

For eight hours across two evenings this week, The Washington Post watched people vote in this historically moderate slice of Pennsylvania framed by Appalachian ridges. They were Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Some had split tickets. Nobody wanted to deal with the hassle of waiting in line on election day. Here are five of their stories.

Deborah White arrived with her husband of four decades, Lawrence, as the sun set over the fall foliage. She had retired from her admissions work at Lehigh University and was not tied to any strict schedule. She wanted to be here, at her own pace, on principle. “I am a 68 year old African American female,” she said. “There was a time when we couldn’t vote. I thought, ‘My God. I have to do it.'”

In the last election, White, a Democrat, used the dropbox because it was convenient and she didn’t want to be covid. Now she was here to exercise a right she felt was under attack. Efforts to reduce early voting hours have bothered her. Closing the slot at night, she thought, would only block voters who have worked all day. “It’s dishonest,” she said, “and it’s controlling. They don’t want us to do what we’re supposed to do.

Carter Prokesch, a 23-year-old research and development engineer, hadn’t expected to vote at all. Then his father urged him to request a mail-in ballot and make his voice heard. So, after work, the self-proclaimed “moderate conservative” went to the Government Center.

He held a split ticket: one vote for Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate candidate, and one vote for Josh Shapiro, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. “Because not all of Shapiro’s commercials were aimed at attacking people,” Prokesch said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano had chartered buses for the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that erupted into an insurrection and vowed to ban abortion without exception, suggesting women who have had the procedure should be charged with murder. He campaigned at events promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Prokesch was fed up with all the fighting. He wanted to be a better Christian and stand with people who treated others with respect. He regretted voting for Trump, he said, after watching the former president hurl so many insults. Prokesch and his father were registered Republicans. His mother and twin sister were Democrats. “We don’t talk about politics,” he said.

When Lax Rode voted in the 2020 election, the 38-year-old therapist had to line up behind 15 people. Maybe 20. It didn’t take long, but the voting process was arduous compared to strolling to a drop box on a balmy evening. Hardly any other humans in sight. Slipping his ballot into the slot. Do.

“I saved time,” he said smiling, “and time is money in this capitalist country, isn’t it?” Rode, who considers himself independent and prefers to keep his political decisions private, left India for the United States in 2008. He became a naturalized citizen about four years ago and marvels at how politics have changed since then.

He has liberal clients and conservative clients. The gap between them has never seemed so wide. He encourages people to stick to the facts. “In India, we didn’t have mail-in voting,” Rode said. “We would have to go there in person. It’s one of the things I like here. It makes our lives more convenient.

Mark Stein, 60, thought downtown Allentown would be quieter on a weeknight. He was right. The Muhlenberg College history professor found a parking space and voted within minutes. Stein appreciated the energy of traditional polls in this swing county, saying he “never missed an election,” but the tension leading up to the midterm elections worries him.

Stein, a Democrat, had heard of armed groups promising to “surveil” voting sites, including drop boxes. He read that the attacker who attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-California) husband with a hammer railed against liberals, blacks and Jews in blog posts.

He thought of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Mastriano, blaming his opponent, Shapiro, for sending his children to a Jewish school. (Mastriano said he criticized the school for being “expensive” and “elite” and not for any religious reason.) “As an American Jew,” Stein said, “I see a safe space in the making. to be swept away”.

Janice Altieri, 58, is a Democrat. Her husband, Joe, 60, is a Republican. They didn’t want to have to tell anyone. “Around here, a lot of people are trying to get you to change your vote,” said Janice, a school librarian. “They give you brochures,” said Joe, an engineer. “Who are ridiculous! Janice said. “That way you don’t have to deal with all of that.”

They could have walked five minutes to the polling station near their home, but the couple preferred the 10-minute drive to the drop box. Lehigh County activists have been known to ambush voters on Election Day. The pamphlets would likely be even more ridiculous this year, Janice said, given all the conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

The couple agreed that the 2020 election was not stolen. Early voting was secure. “I voted straight Democrat,” Janice said, turning to Joe. “I didn’t even ask you!” I don’t even know if our votes match.

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