Pennsylvania Republicans considering the state’s new vote-by-mail option are caught in a crossfire of mixed messaging from their party, from President Donald Trump on down.

The Grand Old Party’s pitch: Mail-in ballots are a good thing for voters, and also perilous for democracy.

Trump on April 7 declared them “a very dangerous thing for this country” because of “cheaters” engaged in election fraud. Trump, who has a long history of making unsubstantiated voter fraud claims, again offered no evidence.

Here in Pennsylvania, the state Republican Party is aggressively pushing mail-in ballots, offering “vote safe” advice on its website, and hosting online training sessions. The Republican National Committee in April sent mailers to Pennsylvania voters urging them to vote by mail.

Still, Pennsylvania Republican Chairperson Lawrence Tabas pushed the mixed messaging in a state Senate hearing Thursday, calling mail-in ballots “an important option” while claiming many voters are reluctant to use them “because of an increased risk of fraud.”

The Pennsylvania Department of State reports that nearly 675,000 voters had as of Wednesday applied for mail-in or absentee ballots for the primary, including 206,865 Republicans. That is more than six times the request rate in the 2016 primary, when only absentee ballots were available.

A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found that 87% of Democrats support allowing any voter to cast a ballot by mail, while Republicans are split, with 49% in favor and 50% opposed. Two-thirds of the voters in that poll expect November’s election to be disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Nancy Patton Mills, chairperson of the state Democratic Party, offered a “simple fix” to the senators.

“We should send a physical application for vote-by-mail to every Pennsylvania voter,” she testified. “And we should provide return postage for both the application and people’s ballots.”

Trump’s campaign, at least, stuck with its message.

Erin Perrine, a Trump campaign spokesperson, called full mail-in vote proposals “ripe for fraud."

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has returned home to Philadelphia to complete the balance of his term at a halfway house.
Elizabeth Robertson / File Photograph
Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has returned home to Philadelphia to complete the balance of his term at a halfway house.

Seth Williams shaves two years off his five-year prison term

Welcome home, Seth Williams!

Philadelphia’s former district attorney, last seen handcuffed and hauled out of a courtroom by U.S. marshals to serve a five-year prison term for bribery, returned last week to finish his sentence under the supervision of a local residential reentry program.

Williams, incarcerated for most of the last three years in West Virginia, returns to the hometown where his once-promising political career collapsed amid a series of personal scandals, federal charges, and ethics inquiries in 2017.

The former top prosecutor’s release was not connected to a push by the Bureau of Prisons to reduce inmate populations to curb the spread of the coronavirus in federal lockups, his attorney Thomas F. Burke told Clout.

Although Williams’ sentence is not yet complete, one of the five years the judge imposed was shaved off for good behavior, and another for the drug treatment program he completed while incarcerated, prosecutors said. Like many federal inmates, Williams was eligible to serve out his final days in custody at a halfway house or under house arrest.

While the feds will keep Williams on a tight leash until his official Sept. 30 release date, he can now go out to work and for certain recreational purposes. After that, he’s still facing three years’ probation and a restitution bill for tens of thousands of dollars.

At Williams’ 2017 sentencing, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond verbally eviscerated the fallen prosecutor, calling him a “criminal” who “fed his face at the trough.”

By accepting gifts from businessmen seeking a leg up in the courts and stealing money meant to cover his mother’s nursing home care, the judge said, Williams humiliated his employees and dumped his mom “like a sack of potatoes,” all to project a high-roller image to the “parasites [with whom he] surrounded himself.”

Now that federal lockup is behind him, said Burke, Williams is “doing well.”

“He’s reconnecting with his family,” the lawyer said. "He even has some job prospects, which under normal circumstances he’d be able to pursue right now.”

Clout also hears that Ken Smukler, who was the right-hand man for Democratic City Committee leader Bob Brady, returned home Wednesday to finish his 18-month sentence for violating campaign finance laws. Smukler was sprung from a prison in South Jersey, not due to the coronavirus but because he was nearing his September release date.

James Moylan remains in prison on fraud and tax evasion convictions.
Tim Tai / File Photograph
James Moylan remains in prison on fraud and tax evasion convictions.

Other Philly pols remain in prison during a pandemic

Some disgraced Philly politicos, after hearing hopeful news, are still sweating it out in federal prisons.

James E. Moylan, former of head of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, was told two weeks ago that he’d been chosen to serve the rest of his 18-month fraud and tax-evasion sentence on house arrest. That decision was part of a push to thin prison populations to curb the spread of the coronavirus, his lawyer Joseph P. Capone told Clout.

The longtime ally to local labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty was placed into quarantine at the federal prison in Fairfield, N.J., and told he’d be let go in 10 to 14 days.

Capone said prison officials reconsidered last week, moving Moylan back to general population.

Lawyers for former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Herbert Vederman, imprisoned on charges tied to gifts he gave U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, said last week that he, too, had been promised house arrest only to see the offer pulled back. He remains at a federal prison in Otisville, N.Y.