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Dozens of mail ballots are going to a GOP ward leader’s South Philly P.O. box, raising ‘ballot harvesting’ concerns

The effort, which comes as Republicans attack mail voting, may violate state law.

Dozens of Republican mail ballot applications submitted in the last week list the address of a P.O. box at this post office at 1713 S. Broad St. in South Philadelphia.
Dozens of Republican mail ballot applications submitted in the last week list the address of a P.O. box at this post office at 1713 S. Broad St. in South Philadelphia.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

A mail ballot mystery is unfolding at an otherwise unremarkable post office box in South Philadelphia.

City elections officials last week received applications from more than three dozen Republican voters across a pocket of the neighborhood. Those applications requested that mail ballots be delivered not to the voters’ homes, but to P.O. Box 54705, an address registered to a recently formed GOP political action committee, according to state data.

Many of those voters told The Inquirer they have no idea why their ballots were sent there. Some said they never even applied to vote by mail.

And yet one out of every six Republican ballot requests in the 26th Ward — the section of deep South Philly south of Passyunk Avenue and west of Broad Street that voted twice for Donald Trump — listed the post office box. That made it the largest single destination for ballots in the city other than nursing homes or elections offices.

“This doesn’t even make any sense,” said Rose DeSantis, 35, who was surprised when told by a reporter that a ballot she says she never requested had been sent to the P.O. box this week. “You would think that would raise some red flags.”

At a time when Republican lawmakers and candidates have attacked mail voting and falsely portrayed it as rife with abuse, the ballot requests and interviews with voters reveal an effort by one GOP operative to use mail ballots that may violate or at least push the boundaries of state law.

For example, the mailing address portion of the form — where the P.O. box was written — is in a visibly different handwriting from the rest of the form on many of the applications, according to two sources who have reviewed the documents. And that handwriting appears on multiple forms, suggesting that the same person wrote in the P.O. box for the voters.

The Philadelphia City Commissioners Office, which oversees elections, said it was aware of the situation and had been “actively monitoring” the issue.

”After we were presented with the additional information by The Philadelphia Inquirer … we began the process of contacting [voters] to determine if they desired a replacement ballot to be sent to an address where they can directly receive it,” said Nick Custodio, deputy to Lisa Deeley, the chair of the city commissioners.

Some ballots had already been sent out to the P.O. box; those will be set aside for the commissioners to review when they’re returned, Custodio said.

The District Attorney’s Office is also aware of the issue and “that there are inconsistencies with the handwriting” on the applications, spokesperson Jane Roh said.

The ballots appear to be the effort of one man: Billy Lanzilotti, a 23-year-old GOP operative, South Philadelphia ward leader, and chairman of the Republican Registration Coalition, the PAC he registered at the P.O. box earlier this year.

In an interview, he said everything about the situation was legal and appropriate.

“I didn’t do anything that to my understanding was against the law,” he said.

‘Help pump out the Republican voter turnout’

Lanzilotti, who already runs a nearby ward, also wants to become the Republican leader for the 26th Ward. Aiming “to help pump out the Republican voter turnout,” he said, he began going door-to-door earlier this month and signing up residents of the 26th to vote by mail.

He’d hand them a form on which he or people he works with had already filled out the voter’s name and his P.O. box as the destination, he said. Having the ballots sent there was a “convenience to the voter,” he said, so it could be hand-delivered to them later by someone they trusted.

“There’s been a number of problems with the post office lately,” he said. ”Checks are being stolen out of the mail. They like it this way because I’m someone they trust.”

But many of the voters said they don’t know who Lanzilotti is and had no idea he was submitting mail ballot applications in their names.

The Inquirer spoke to 12 of the 39 voters whose applications requested their mail ballots be sent to Lanzilotti. Only two said they knowingly filled out a ballot application with the understanding it would be sent to him instead of their home address.

Five others were unaware their applications had requested their ballots be diverted to Lanzilotti’s P.O. box, at the post office at Broad Street and Castle Avenue.

And five more were adamant they hadn’t applied to vote by mail at all — or at least didn’t know that’s what they were doing when a man showed up at their doorstep to talk to them about the May 17 primary election.

Only one said he’d actually received the ballot Lanzilotti applied for in his name.

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Rose Centeno, 59, at first insisted she would never vote by mail, echoing false Republican claims about mail ballots. But when told an application had been submitted last week and a ballot mailed out in her name, Centeno said she wasn’t surprised.

“That’s what they do,” she said. “That’s why you can’t trust the mail ballots. This whole city’s screwed up.”

She later recalled that she had filled out some paperwork with the assistance of a man who showed up at her door and offered to help her change her voter registration from Democrat to Republican.

Maria Morris, 55, also remembered agreeing to switch her party registration during an unannounced visit from a man at her doorstep. She signed some papers, she said, not really paying attention to what they were.

“He didn’t mention anything about ballots,” she said.

And Joseph Tralie III, 63, insisted he hadn’t filled out any paperwork at all.

He doesn’t vote, he said, and had no plans to do so this month. He learned that a ballot in his name had been sent to Lanzilotti’s address when he was contacted Thursday evening by the City Commissioners Office.

“I have my address on my voter registration,” he said. “If someone’s asking for my ballot to be sent to a random P.O. Box, I’m not sure how that can count.”

‘Smacks of unlawful conduct’

Republicans up and down the ballot have spent two years attacking mail voting, led by Trump’s lies about fraud and the 2020 election being stolen.

The top Republican candidates for governor are campaigning on repealing Act 77, the 2019 law that allows any voter to cast a ballot by mail. The reality is voter fraud in any form is vanishingly rare, and the handful of confirmed instances in 2020 involved Republicans seeking to cast votes for Trump. Even in Lanzilotti’s case, which lawyers from both parties described as concerning, there’s no evidence of fraudulent votes being cast.

It’s unclear whether Lanzilotti’s behavior crosses legal lines, the lawyers said. Much of it depends on details that aren’t yet known.

“There’s some things you’re describing that I think have arguments that could be made that they’re appropriate, there’s some arguments that can be made that they’re inappropriate,” said Matt Haverstick, an elections lawyer in Montgomery County who works with Republican campaigns. “But the whole zeitgeist of what you’re telling me smacks of unlawful conduct.”

It’s legal for voters to have ballots sent to an address other than their homes — that’s what absentee ballots were intended for in the first place.

“If the circumstance is, it’s mail delivered at a retirement home, and some kindly ward person gets them from the mailroom and hands them out, that’s one thing,” Haverstick said. “Going to a P.O. box at the address for a PAC? I have to think about that one. It’s certainly one that would give me pause under the election code.”

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania's May 2022 primary election

The voters don’t have access to the P.O. box to retrieve their ballots. A few said this week they hadn’t yet received ballots, which Lanzilotti said was because he’s been busy and hasn’t yet delivered them.

“I can only do this in my spare time,” he said. “I have a full-time job.”

It’s also unclear whether delivering ballots to voters is allowed: State election law isn’t explicit on the question, and Act 77 hasn’t been tested on it.

Other legal questions are clearer.

Voters are supposed to fill out their own mail ballot applications, unless they’re ill or did not sign an authorization for a specific person to help them.

None of the 39 requests noted any help in filling out the form. The two sources who reviewed them said many of the applications featured two different sets of handwriting, in line with Lanzilotti’s explanation that he handed voters pre-filled forms.

Ballots are also to be returned only by the voters themselves, with the sole exception for disabled voters who must explicitly authorize a person to help.

Democrats have argued that third-party ballot delivery should be allowed in Pennsylvania, as it is in some other states, because it provides greater access for voters, especially those who need assistance for reasons other than disability. But current law doesn’t allow it, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed in 2020.

Republicans have focused on reports of voters returning multiple ballots — Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, voted by mail and his wife returned his ballot along with her own — to criticize the mail voting system.

Emphasizing that “ballot harvesting,” as they call it, is illegal under state law, state Senate Republicans last month passed legislation that would ban drop boxes, calling it a necessary step to ensure voters are the only ones who return their own ballots.

Lehigh County’s district attorney sparked controversy this week when he said he would send detectives to monitor drop boxes to ensure voters only return their own ballots. Leigh Chapman, who as acting Pennsylvania secretary of state is the highest-ranking elections official, asked him Thursday to reconsider, warning that it could amount to voter intimidation.

Lanzilotti said he’s not returning anyone’s completed ballots.

But Leonard Armstrong, 71, said Lanzilotti offered to do exactly that.

Armstrong said he’s known and trusted Lanzilotti for years as a “kid from the neighborhood.” So when Lanzilotti brought him his ballot last week, Armstrong filled it out that same afternoon, he said, and handed it back in the sealed envelope. He said Lanzilotti had offered to deliver the ballot on his behalf.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t trust him,” Armstrong said.

Lanzilotti insisted Armstrong was mistaken, telling The Inquirer that all he had done was drop off the ballot at Armstrong’s home.

As for the other voters who accused him of submitting ballot applications without their knowledge, Lanzilotti said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“The voters signed those forms saying they wanted their ballot sent [to me,]” he added. “They’re the ones that signed it.”

By Thursday evening, word of the unusual number of ballots being sent to Lanzilotti had begun to spread through the 26th Ward.

“Everybody’s talking about it. Nobody any of us knows has a P.O. Box,” Rose DeSantis said. “This sounds like some fraud or crook stuff.”