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A Pa. town’s ‘election integrity law’ shows how Trump’s lies can hijack local politics and government

The resolution passed unanimously. No matter that none of this was legal or enforceable, and the board’s own attorney said as much.

Storm clouds gather over Lehigh Township on an August afternoon. In May, the township board passed — and later rescinded — a resolution declaring the state’s mail ballot law unconstitutional.
Storm clouds gather over Lehigh Township on an August afternoon. In May, the township board passed — and later rescinded — a resolution declaring the state’s mail ballot law unconstitutional.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

LEHIGH TOWNSHIP, Pa. — For the most part, the Board of Supervisors meeting was just like any other in this farming community.

Approval of a $256,968.10 paving project. A kerfuffle with Parks and Rec over maintenance of a baseball field. Reports of an “out of control” landscaper destroying crops near Teel Road.

Then came Resolution 2021-9. “[T]he following election integrity laws will be adhered to throughout the Lehigh Township community,” it began.

It read like a proclamation straight from the Trump campaign. No more mail ballots, drop boxes, or “ballot harvesting” ― a phrase used by critics to describe third-party collection of ballots. Dead people removed from the voter rolls. Stricter photo ID rules. An affirmation of gun rights. The penalty for noncompliance? A $15,000 fine and seven years in prison.

It passed unanimously. No matter that none of this was legal or enforceable, and the board’s own attorney said as much. Municipalities can’t set their own election rules.

Just like that, the election grievances still ricocheting in GOP-led statehouses across the country engulfed this rural town of 10,500 a half-hour drive north of Allentown. Lehigh Township’s adoption of the resolution in May provoked a backlash that led the board to rescind it. County lawyers found it alarming enough that they alerted state and federal law enforcement.

» READ MORE: Kathy Barnette’s hunt for election fraud has rippled across the American election denial movement and made her a GOP contender for Senate in Pennsylvania.

The episode shows how Donald Trump’s lies of a stolen election are sowing discord in everyday life, hijacking the machinery of a municipal government tasked with decision-making on everything from zoning and development to public safety.

”The idea that a government body in a locality would be willing to say these kinds of things — which literally undermine, explicitly undermine the way that elections function in the state of Pennsylvania — is really troubling,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

And while Trump remains the chief proponent of the election-fraud conspiracy, the controversy in Lehigh Township shows how it is sustained by grassroots activists and ordinary people — even in a swing county like Northampton, which voted for Joe Biden.

So as Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate call for renewed investigations into the 2020 election, they aren’t just jockeying for Trump’s endorsement. They’re responding to pressure from the ground up.

Elections officials across the state say they continue to receive threats and harassment, much of it fueled by demands for a partisan “audit” of the 2020 election. Trump himself has stoked the frenzy, calling out senior Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers by name as State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) pursues such a review. Officials from the three counties Mastriano is targeting rejected his request for election equipment.

That prompted outrage from supporters. One warned on Facebook that “You are traitors and treasonous … there’s plenty of trees in the pine creek gorge to hang ropes from.”

Republican commissioners in Tioga County urged Mastriano to move on and “let responsible Republicans get back to work.”

No longer ‘keyboard warriors’

The Lehigh Valley has long been a political bellwether in a polarized state, and as recently as last month Biden was in the region visiting a Mack truck plant. Made up of Northampton and Lehigh Counties, the area reflects the state’s political-geographic divides: a blue urban core in cities like Allentown and Bethlehem, purple suburbs, and red rural towns like Lehigh Township, where Trump got two-thirds of the vote last year.

Northampton was one of three Pennsylvania counties that voted both for Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

» READ MORE: From 2019: If Trump’s 2020 path runs through Pa., Northampton County is a place to watch

But if the broader electorate had signaled it was ready to move past Trump in the last election, the local GOP wasn’t. Multiple local and county Republican officials went to Washington on Jan. 6, joining tens of thousands of others for a Trump rally that ended in the violent Capitol insurrection.

We’re never going back to the old Republican Party,” Lee Snover, the chair of the county GOP, told a local public radio station as she was returning that day.

The Lehigh Township board member who introduced the resolution — Cindy Miller, 61, a longtime elected official and fixture of civic life — said she observed the riot from the middle of the Capitol’s front lawn.

Miller, a commercial Realtor with an M.B.A., downplayed the violence and cast it as an attempt to “save Our country,” saying on Facebook that people will no longer “just talk and be keyboard warriors.”

“If the message is ignored my concern is the people will take it to a higher level and there will be more blood shed,” she wrote on Jan. 7.

Miller has since not responded to Inquirer requests for comment.

Steve Lynch, 43, a personal trainer who’s now the party’s nominee for county executive, described his experience that day as “amazing.”

“If I was a gambling man I would tell you that the patriot movement is going to take over the Republican Party,” Lynch, who grew up in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, said in an interview.

He said he didn’t enter the Capitol and blames antifa for any violence. FBI agents later visited his home, Lynch said, but only his wife was home and he hasn’t heard from them since.

His campaign materials feature a logo of a lion’s head with red, white, and blue stripes. When a similar-looking lion logo appeared in a Trump campaign video, critics pointed out how it mirrored a symbol promoted by a white nationalist hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Lynch said he’s never heard of that group and his logo was designed by a campaign aide specifically for his personal brand.)

When Sen. Pat Toomey, an Allentown-area resident, voted to convict Trump on impeachment charges for inciting the Capitol attack, the Lehigh and Northampton County GOP committees each censured him.

Fed up with mail ballots

As the GOP-led state legislature held hearings on Pennsylvania’s election system, the Democratic-controlled Northampton County Council in March passed a measure encouraging lawmakers to allow counties to start processing mail ballots before Election Day, among other recommendations.

It was against that backdrop that Miller proposed her resolution — one week before Pennsylvania’s primary election.

Among other things, it said Lehigh Township would ignore Act 77, the 2019 state law that allows any voter to cast ballots by mail. That law had widespread support among Republicans and was signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

But Republicans’ opinion of the law soured last year amid Trump’s attacks on mail ballots and the Wolf administration’s implementation of mail voting.

Local governments can’t set their own election rules, as township solicitor David Backenstoe told the board. And this resolution, he later warned, “could be seen as suppressing or disenfranchising voters.”

In any case, local laws and penalties are established as ordinances, Backenstoe said, according to the meeting minutes. Resolutions are essentially symbolic.

Miller knew that. She’s the chair of the township Board of Supervisors and has been on it since 2012. She’s had other public experience, including stints on the Planning Commission and local chamber of commerce, and as a tax collector and an aide to a state senator. Miller ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 2016.

She acknowledged that the town lacked the authority to impose its own election rules. “But the township has to start speaking up and pushing back,” she said, the minutes show. Yet even as Miller maintained she just wanted to send a message, to the untrained eye the resolution appeared to have real teeth — it threatened prison time and fines.

The resolution, which was introduced with no prior notice, was unanimously approved, 4-0, with little debate.

‘Illegal, unconstitutional, and unenforceable’

Word started to spread. And behind the scenes, government officials were taking action. An attorney for Northampton County wrote to the township that the resolution was “illegal, unconstitutional, and unenforceable,” according to emails obtained by The Inquirer through a public records request.

Deputy solicitor Richard E. Santee wrote on June 8 that he was sharing copies of the resolution with the U.S. Justice Department, Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, and local authorities.

“The mere existence of this official action of Lehigh Township has the effect of intimidating, harassing, and suppressing qualified voters and election officials,” he wrote.

The same day, the township Planning Commission’s vice chairman threatened in an email to the township solicitor to resign if the board left “this embarrassing political stunt on the record.”

Residents started to hear about the resolution, too.

Colin Murphy, a 52-year-old farmer and Democratic activist, said he worried the measure might scare away a developer who’s planning a major commercial and residential project. He hopes the project will bring jobs and help pay for a new elementary school opening this fall.

“For this small of a township, with this much at stake … for [Cindy Miller] to be playing schoolyard politics, it’s just not the time and place,” he said in an interview this month outside a coffee shop, as trucks barreled down a two-lane highway. “WE SUPPORT AND PRAY FOR OUR POLICE,” said a sign in the window.

A friend of Murphy’s saw it as an attempt to suppress voting and helped spread the word.

“My feeling was if we allow this to happen here, sort of in the cloak of darkness under cover in a small little township like this, it’s gonna catch fire and keep happening,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because she said she’s faced harassment from people who don’t share her political beliefs.

She contacted her friend Mark Pinsley, a Democrat and the elected county controller in neighboring Lehigh County. Though he has no purview over the issue, he was upset and wrote a critical opinion piece in Allentown’s Morning Call.

By that point, even some of the Lehigh Township supervisors were having second thoughts. “Remember we represent the residents, and we can’t/shouldn’t push our beliefs on them,” one member, Michael Jones, emailed his fellow supervisors.

At a June 22 board meeting, they said they believed it had been a mistake to support the resolution: It was illegal and could expose the township to costly litigation.

Miller claimed the public supported it, pointing to a petition she circulated that gathered some 250 signatures.

The board voted 3-1 to rescind the resolution, with Miller voting to keep it.

She took solace, according to meeting minutes, in the fact that the state House had just passed an election bill imposing stricter voter ID requirements, among other provisions. (It was later vetoed by Wolf.)

“The whole point of the resolution,” she said, “was to get the attention higher up.”

“We’re all trying to heal here and move forward,” said Lori Vargo Heffner, a Democrat and the president of the Northampton County Council. “The election’s over. It’s done.”