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The Trump campaign can’t have poll watchers at Philly satellite election offices, judge says

The lawsuit had echoed false claims Trump himself made during last month’s presidential debate, when he said that “bad things happen in Philadelphia."

Voters stand in line outside Philadelphia City Hall to apply for and submit mail ballots.
Voters stand in line outside Philadelphia City Hall to apply for and submit mail ballots.Read moreAstrid Rodrigues / Staff

President Donald Trump’s campaign does not have the right for poll watchers to observe activities inside the city’s new satellite election offices, a Philadelphia judge ruled Friday.

The campaign sued the city last week, arguing its representatives should be permitted inside the offices, where voters can request, complete, and submit mail ballots. Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer issued a ruling Friday denying the petition.

“The satellite offices where these activities, and only these activities, occur are true ‘offices of the Board of Elections’ and are not polling places, nor public sessions of the Board of Elections, at which watchers have a right to be present under the election code,” Glazer wrote in his 14-page opinion.

But Glazer’s ruling didn’t end the legal battle over the satellite offices. The Trump campaign filed a notice of appeal Friday afternoon in Commonwealth Court.

The lawsuit echoed false claims Trump himself made during last month’s presidential debate, when he said “bad things happen in Philadelphia" because elections officials turned his supporters away from the satellite offices. His campaign argued it had a right to observe the Philadelphia offices because they were marketed as early voting locations.

The legal battle, as well as the president’s comments, are part of a broader effort to cast doubt on the integrity of the election — a strategy Trump also employed in 2016. This year, Trump has launched baseless attacks against mail voting as susceptible to widespread fraud.

“What are they trying to hide?” Samantha Zager, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said Friday. “Every campaign has a right to have watchers observe the voting process and make sure all rules are being followed, and President Trump is boldly standing up for that right.”

His campaign is also recruiting Election Day volunteers across the country, dubbed “Army for Trump” on his website. The campaign says it already has more than 50,000 volunteer observers across key battleground states, including Pennsylvania. City and state officials are increasingly warning that could lead to voter intimidation.

“Anyone who comes to the cradle of American democracy to try to suppress the vote and violate the law and commits crimes will find themselves in a jail cell," Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said this week.

» READ MORE: Trump has put Philly on the front lines of his attack on voting

Mail ballots and the satellite offices where voters can request them and fill them out are drawing attention because this year is the first time any Pennsylvania voter can vote by mail. Election law now also requires counties to provide mail ballots on demand to voters who request them in person. The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has encouraged counties to open satellite elections offices to make it easier for voters to vote by mail early.

Philadelphia opened eight satellite offices last week, and plans to open a total of 15 before Election Day, not including the main elections offices at City Hall and on Columbus Boulevard at Spring Garden Street. Several other counties, including those surrounding Philadelphia, also plan to open similar locations.

Glazer ruled Friday that state law simply does not provide for poll watchers inside those offices.

“For this court to read into the Election Code the right of watchers to be present in Board of Elections' offices, which the Legislature did not expressly provide, would be the worst sort of judicial activism,” Glazer wrote. “This court will not engage in such improper conduct.”

» READ MORE: Philly and Pennsylvania are gearing up to protect the election from Trump

A lawyer for the city argued during a hearing this week that the offices are not official voting locations like polling places, and noted that campaigns have a right to observe the counting of mail ballots after they are opened, beginning on Election Day.

Lisa Deeley, chairperson of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, who run local elections, said she was pleased the ruling affirmed the city’s position.

“On Election Day, Nov. 3, we will welcome authorized poll watchers to perform their statutory duties,” she said. “In the meantime, we are continuing to work to ensure that all voters will be able to vote safely and securely.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, celebrated Friday’s ruling.

“Today’s ruling makes clear, yet again, that the president’s wild claims don’t hold up in the court of law,” he said. “Voters can have confidence their voice will be heard in this election.”

The commissioners had offered the Trump campaign a tour of the satellite offices, a lawyer for the city noted during the court hearing this week. The campaign has not accepted the invitation.

“The court suggests that the campaign do so,” Glazer wrote.

Individuals who are residents of Philadelphia and associated with the campaign are permitted to enter the satellite offices themselves to register to vote, apply for ballots, complete their ballots, or drop them off, Glazer added.

“However,” he wrote, “they may not linger in the satellite offices indefinitely as ‘watchers’ under the Election Code.”