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No movement on pre-canvassing as Cumberland County is told FBI interested in Trump email
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No movement on pre-canvassing as Cumberland County is told FBI interested in Trump email

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Cumberland County will decisively not be conducting a pre-canvass of ballots on Election Day, given the 48-hour notice requirement that would necessitate action by Sunday morning, which did not occur.

The county was in communication with Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who had offered support to help counties conduct a pre-canvass, but nothing concrete has materialized out of the late-breaking offer, according to the commissioners.

Correspondence reviewed by The Sentinel also indicates Boockvar informed the commissioners that the FBI “would like to speak with you” about the email the county received from a Trump campaign member requesting sensitive election security information.

That email only served to reinforce the county’s position that the security and legal risks of conducting a pre-canvass on Election Day — which the county had intended to do until about two weeks ago, but decided to cancel — were not worth the marginal benefit of starting to process votes a day earlier.

Ideally, the decision to not pre-canvass should not affect the county’s vote-counting; mailed-in ballots will be processed starting Wednesday morning, and a final result will still be issued eight days after the election — the end-date for canvassing given that military ballots must arrive by this time.

The particular concern for Tuesday is President Donald Trump’s statements that he will seek to legally intervene if results aren't finalized on election night — at which point Republicans might appear to be in the lead, given that Democrats have requested mail-in ballots at higher rates.

Even if unsuccessful, Democrats fear the move could serve to undermine the legitimacy of the election in the eyes of Trump's voter base, leading to unrest.

During a lengthy elections board meeting on Thursday, the commissioners acknowledged the perception issues created by Trump’s efforts to discredit the mail-in vote tallying process.

But county officials argued the best solution was to stay the course and not pre-canvass, because the pre-canvass would require county elections staff to move to a physically larger space than the elections office itself.

“I see no benefit at all, even if it’s a small risk, of moving ballots to a different location,” said County Commissioner Vince DiFilippo. “Starting [the tally] later is not going to jeopardize an accurate vote count.”

“We understand perception is important, but it’s our opinion that the security and accuracy of the ballots is more important,” County Commissioner Gary Eichelberger said.

Eichelberger and DiFilippo voted Thursday to officially ax the county’s pre-canvass; Commissioner Jean Foschi, the board’s only Democrat, did not, preferring to keep the option open until the last minute.

But on Sunday, after communications with Boockvar, Foschi said there was not a path forward a mere two days before the election.

“When we make decisions that are hurried or out of panic, those often end up being bad decisions,” Foschi said.

The county’s conclusion that it would need to physically move venues in order to pre-canvass has to do with Pennsylvania’s Election Code and the right of candidates and political parties to observe the process.

“Pre-canvassing” refers to the period between 7 a.m. on Election Day and the 8 p.m. close of in-person polls, during which mail-in and absentee ballots can be opened and counted, but not recorded in the county’s elections database, which can only be done when the full canvass period begins after polls close.

Pennsylvania code requires that political parties and each candidate on the ballot may have a pre-canvass observer, and that the observer “shall be permitted to remain in the room” where the ballots are located.

The county began to question the efficacy of a pre-canvass after receiving guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of State roughly two weeks ago clarifying that the observers could not be "in the room" remotely, through video technology, but must be allowed to be physically present, county Elections Director Bethany Salzarulo said Thursday.

Given that both parties are organizing more ballot-counting observers this year, and combined with COVID-19 distancing rules, it was determined that a pre-canvass was not possible within the physical confines of the county’s elections office on Election Day, when additional staff must also be present to manage queries from in-person polling sites.

This concern was furthered by the Trump campaign email, which asked for specific details about the chain of custody for ballots and voting machines — down to the address and room number where ballots are stored each step of the way, and information on the individual people and security details that oversee them.

Cumberland County did not respond to the Trump campaign request — which was sent from a campaign volunteer’s Gmail account — although the campaign confirmed it’s authenticity and said the questions were "standard election transparency details."

But county officials said it’s clear that the campaign is looking for any possible technical hiccup in the ballot-counting process that could bolster Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud with mail-in voting.

“Moving those ballots somewhere else and being accused of losing chain of custody, having seen those Trump campaign materials, is a recipe for disaster,” Foschi said.

The county received a torrent of criticism on social media and at Thursday’s elections meeting from those who said the county should have planned ahead to address the issue with pre-canvass observers, securing a larger venue to do the work.

But the commissioners argued that the county’s vote-counting timeline is the same as it’s always been; the pressure to accelerate it with pre-canvassing comes from concerns over Trump’s rhetoric, something for which the county is not responsible.

The matter took on significant partisan overtones after prominent Pennsylvania Democrats suggested that Cumberland County had conspiratorial motives.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, for instance, implied in a Twitter post that the county’s decision to not pre-canvass was tied to the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court; Trump is attempting to have the Supreme Court throw out ballots that arrive after Election Day under Pennsylvania's extension rule.

On Sunday, Eichelberger said any implication the county would stop counting votes at Trump’s behest was inaccurate, and such suggestions were not helping the cause of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to push back against Trump.

“Boockvar and the folks from the administration should be out there saying that’s not going to happen, that we're not going to stop counting votes,” Eichelberger said. “They should be reassuring voters, not ginning up this kind of angst.”

The Pennsylvania Department of State has not yet responded to an inquiry from The Sentinel as to how many counties are known to have gotten the security information request from the Trump campaign, and what concerns the administration may have regarding it.

Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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