The first line of the Republican lawsuit makes clear its motivations: “Bad things are happening in Philadelphia.” That’s not a legal argument, and it’s unlikely to sway a judge in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas.
But that’s not the point.
The lawsuit filed late Thursday on behalf of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, with language echoing his dig at Philadelphia during Tuesday’s debate, is the latest effort in a political operation to shape a false narrative that the results of the Nov. 3 election can’t be trusted. Especially if they hinge on Pennsylvania, a critical swing state that could determine the outcome.
Trump’s attacks on the election in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania now encompass all methods of voting — and how those votes are counted.
Vote by mail? Trump has spent months falsely attacking it as fraudulent, including seizing on a minor administrative error last month in Luzerne County.
In-person voting on Election Day? Trump’s called for an “army” of poll watchers to stop the supposed “bad things” that happen in Philadelphia.
Early voting using mail ballots at elections offices? The campaign this week sent uncertified monitors to elections offices where state law doesn’t give them the right to be, the president complained on national TV that they weren’t allowed in, and then his campaign finally sued the city over the matter.
And Trump has repeatedly declared that the winner should be known on Election Day, an unlikely scenario in a state where officials believe counting will take days. Asked during Tuesday’s debate if he would ask his supporters to stay calm during such an extended period of uncertainty, Trump didn’t do so.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it," he said. “If it’s a fair election, I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated. I can’t go along with that.”
However votes are cast, however long they take to count, Trump has already laid the groundwork for undermining them. And Philadelphia is ground zero for Trump’s attack on voting.
“In a typical election, candidates attack each other,” said Al Schmidt, the lone Republican on the Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners, which run elections. “In this election, it is our electoral system that is under attack.”
Why Philadelphia? It is both a huge city and a heavily Democratic one — a fifth of all registered Democrats in the state live in Philadelphia, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1. Turnout for Joe Biden in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs could determine who wins the White House.
“It’s the obvious place to come looking to get votes not counted or to get votes delayed in being counted,” said Richardson Dilworth, director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy.
The week marked a significant escalation in what started as a rhetorical crusade against mail voting, grew into a sprawling legal campaign to limit how and when mail ballots could be used, and has now gone further.
The Trump campaign dispatched supporters — whom Trump wrongly called “poll watchers” — to new satellite elections offices in Philadelphia where voters can request and submit mail ballots without using the mail. State law doesn’t grant poll watchers the right to monitor activities at elections offices like it does at traditional polling places on Election Day. And the Trump supporters weren’t certified to be poll watchers as required under state law anyway.
Meanwhile, a deluge of mail ballots could take days to count, sowing chaos if the country is waiting on Pennsylvania to know who the next president is.
“If state leaders want to run the risk of negative national news coverage during a presidential election in a battleground state with the anticipated high turnout, then they should do nothing,” Jeff Snyder, a Republican county commissioner in central Pennsylvania’s Clinton County, said Thursday. “The General Assembly must give counties additional time before Election Day to begin the time consuming manual work" of preparing ballots to be counted.”
Legislative negotiations over changes that might have included such a fix were tense in Harrisburg last month, and stalled entirely after a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling extended the deadline for mail ballots, something Trump and other Republicans had fought.
Instead of passing pre-canvassing legislation, the GOP-controlled House moved this week to create an “election integrity” committee that would have the power to subpoena election officials and ballots. It was scheduled for final floor vote Thursday before the House session was abruptly canceled after a Republican lawmaker tested positive for the coronavirus.
“By legislating from the bench, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ... injected chaos into the general election by creating election procedures not found anywhere in current law and ensuring Pennsylvania — and thereby the nation — will not have reliable results on Election Day,” Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the House majority leader, said Wednesday.
Electoral chaos could benefit Trump. Contested election results could end up the Supreme Court — where Trump has explicitly said he wants to install a new justice before Election Day — and delayed ones could end up in Congress, as Trump himself told supporters at a rally last Saturday in Harrisburg.
“And I don’t want to end up in the Supreme Court and I don’t want to go back to Congress, either, even though we have an advantage if we go back to Congress — does everyone understand that?” Trump said to cheers.
He was referring to a constitutional provision in which, if the election is thrown to the House, each state gets one vote. Despite the overall Democratic House majority, Republicans currently have a majority of the seats in 26 states, compared to 22 for Democrats (Pennsylvania’s delegation is split 9-9).
The seeds of this moment were planted late last year, but the political dynamics run much deeper. Pennsylvania is a state uniquely suited to be a fierce political battleground in the Trump era. It has a disproportionate share of white voters who didn’t go to college compared with the United States as a whole. That group is a key pillar of Trump’s support, and Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes make it a bigger political prize than swing states with similar demographics like Michigan and Wisconsin.
A new election law enacted last year greatly expanded mail voting but prevented mail ballots from being opened until Election Day.
Now, it’s the fear over how Trump could exploit the time needed to count mail ballots that increasingly keeps Democrats awake at night. Statewide, more than 1.5 million registered Democrats have requested mail ballots, compared withabout 567,000 Republicans, as Trump’s relentless campaign against mail voting has dissuaded his voters from using it.
In short, with Trump voters expected to mostly cast ballots in person and Biden voters already doing so by mail, votes for Trump will likely be counted faster on election night. Mail ballots counted in the days after could swing that margin in Biden’s favor — a phenomenon known in political science as “the blue shift.”
And Trump could wrongly claim the election is being stolen from him.
Democrats, after months of encouraging their supporters to vote by mail during the pandemic, are now changing course. Bob Brady, chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee, said the local party has shifted back to its bread-and-butter tactics for getting out the vote on Election Day.
“I was never a mail ballot person, but it was the way of life," he said. "Right now, we’re going to run our operation. We’re going to have our committee people. We’re going to have our ward leaders like we always do. That’s the safest and best way.”
Philadelphia voters lined up to request and submit mail ballots at the main City Hall elections office Friday decried Trump’s nationally televised attack on the city and his new lawsuit against it.
“It’s a perfect example of voter intimidation,” said Lamin Sonko, a 26-year-old medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. “The campaign has a lot to be concerned about in how he’s managed the pandemic. Having poll watchers here to intimidate voters shows how concerned they are.”
Carolyn Burke, who lives in Fairmount, dropped off her ballot Friday morning at City Hall and said of the office: “These are not polls.”
“If Trump supporters were to come out en masse, some people would be intimidated,” she said. “And some wouldn’t. It’s just not needed. It’s a gross assault on the regular person trying to vote.”
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Friday that “it’s clear the president’s strategy is to inject a lot of noise and a lot of lies into the public discourse."
“What is equally important for people to know is that every time he does that and it manifests itself in a lawsuit, we shut it down in court,” Shapiro said. "In court, we deal in facts and evidence. And in every case, either he has failed to demonstrate any actual fraud or the accusations for said fraud have been disproven.”
Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.