The fallout from the discovery of a potential GOP “ballot harvesting” operation in South Philadelphia continued Tuesday, as two state party staffers lost their jobs, the matter became fodder for attacks in the Republican primary for governor, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle jockeyed to define just what the situation said — or didn’t — about the security of voting by mail.
Republican Party officials fired Shamus O’Donnell, 27, and C.J. Parker, 24, both of whom had been affiliated with the Republican Registration Coalition, the political action committee behind the South Philadelphia mail ballot operation, according to four party sources familiar with the matter.
Prior to his termination, O’Donnell, the PAC’s former treasurer and a Republican ward leader in Northeast Philadelphia, had worked as a field organizer for the state party, most recently on the campaign of state Senate candidate Sam Oropeza. Parker, also a GOP ward leader in the Northeast, had worked as a personal aide to state party chair Lawrence Tabas.
O’Donnell and Parker declined to comment Tuesday and party officials, including Tabas, did not respond to requests for comment.
But the sources who described the terminations — and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter — said the party’s decision to cut ties with the two men stemmed from an Inquirer story last week that raised questions about the PAC’s work registering people in South Philadelphia to vote by mail.
The news organization found that dozens of Republican mail ballots for the May 17 primary were being diverted to a P.O. box registered to the Republican Registration Coalition. The committee’s chairman — Billy Lanzilotti, a onetime Republican ward leader in Philadelphia and former campaign staffer for U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Bucks) — said he’d helped the voters fill out their ballot applications, inserting his P.O. box on the form where voters would typically write their home addresses.
Though Lanzilotti maintained he was doing this as a “service to the voters” and intended to hand-deliver the ballots once they arrived, many of the affected voters said they did not remember applying to vote by mail and had no idea why their ballots were going to Lanzilotti instead of directly to them. One said Lanzilotti had delivered his ballot back to the city once it had been filled out — which would violate state law.
Of the top 10 mailing addresses for Philadelphia ballots, Lanzilotti’s P.O. box was the only one that was not an elections office or a nursing home.
Philadelphia’s fellow GOP ward leaders voted Saturday to oust Lanzilotti from his position as the leader of South Philadelphia’s 39th Ward, calling the situation troubling at a time when Republican lawmakers and candidates have attacked mail voting and falsely characterized it as rife with abuse by their Democrat rivals.
In an interview Tuesday, Matt Wolfe, an attorney for O’Donnell, said his client had no involvement in Lanzilotti’s ballot operation and had merely agreed to sign on as treasurer for his PAC.
“Shamus had no knowledge of the mail ballot applications and what Billy Lanzilotti was doing,” said Wolfe, who also serves as a Republican ward leader in West Philadelphia.
He declined to say whether O’Donnell had lost his job with the state party but said the Republican City Committee had not considered voting to remove O’Donnell and Parker as ward leaders when they ousted Lanzilotti last week.
None of the affected voters interviewed by The Inquirer said Lanzilotti had attempted to influence or alter their votes.
State law forbids third-party ballot delivery — what Republicans call “ballot harvesting” — except when disabled voters specifically authorize someone else to turn in their ballot for them. But the Lanzilotti ballots, even if delivered in a way forbidden by state law, have not been found to be fraudulent.
Voter fraud — especially the kinds of complex, shadowy operations at the center of many baseless conspiracy theories — is rare
But that didn’t stop Republicans from seeking to weaponize the situation Tuesday in their ongoing efforts to cast doubt on the security of voting by mail.
In the governor’s race, candidate Bill McSwain attempted to connect Lanzilotti’s operation to one primary opponent, former Delaware County Councilmember Dave White.
Lanzilotti’s Republican Registration Coalition PAC was formed earlier this year with $6,500 in donations from a fund controlled by GOP fund-raiser and former Republican National Committee member Bob Asher, who is supporting White in the primary. Lanzilotti had gathered signatures for White’s nominating petitions in Southeast Philadelphia.
“There is a clear connection between Dave White’s closest advisers and a scheme to manipulate … voters perpetrated by Dave White operative Billy Lanzilotti and the Republican Registration Coalition,” McSwain’s campaign manager, James Fitzpatrick, said in a statement Tuesday. “Any connection between a gubernatorial candidate and potential election misconduct is unacceptable.”
Bob Salera, campaign manager for White, shot back, denying any connection to Lanzilotti.
“These baseless allegations are what the last desperate gasps of Bill McSwain’s dying campaign look like,” he said. “It’s just sad.”
In Harrisburg, State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), the House GOP’s elections point person and chair of the House State Government Committee, cited the situation as he renewed his call for changes to how counties process and approve mail ballot applications — a measure that was part of a much larger bill vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last year.
“This is nothing more than ballot harvesting,” Grove said in a statement Tuesday.
It’s not clear that the specific policies advocated by Grove would have prevented the South Philly ballots from going out.
The signatures on the ballot applications, for example, appear to be legitimate. The mailing address fields — where Lanzilotti’s P.O. box is written — appear to have been filled out in different handwriting. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted in 2020 that elections workers aren’t trained handwriting analysts as it barred counties from conducting signature analysis on ballot envelopes.
And Democrats pointed to the fact that Lanzilotti was caught as proof that the system was working and secure.
City elections officials have said they will segregate the affected ballots when they are returned so they can be considered separately from the rest of the election’s ballots.
“As you can see,” State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) wrote in a letter to his colleagues Monday, “the current systems that we have in place to provide secure elections worked, as the individual who engaged in this egregious behavior was identified and removed from the process.”