Officials in Philadelphia voted at an emergency meeting Tuesday morning to reinstate a security measure that could dramatically slow vote counting in Pennsylvania's most populous city.
The Philadelphia elections board voted 2-1 at a city commissioners meeting around 7 a.m. after a conservative group filed a lawsuit challenging their decision last week to do away with a time-consuming process to prevent possible double votes from being counted.
“I want to make it very clear that when there are conversations that occur later this evening about whether or not Philadelphia has counted all of their ballots that the reasons some ballots will not be counted is because Republican attorneys targeted Philadelphia, and only Philadelphia, in trying to force us to do a procedure that no other county does,” Seth Bluestein, the sole Republican commissioner, said before he voted to reinstate the process.
The procedure, known as poll book reconciliation, requires temporarily halting vote counting to scan poll books into the voting system to ensure those who've voted in person did not also vote by mail.
Philadelphia is the only one of the 67 counties in the battleground state that will use the procedure during the count. Bluestein said Tuesday afternoon that there are "potentially 20-30,000 mail ballots that will be processed on a rolling basis after they are reconciled against the poll books."
While the process caught a handful of double votes during the 2020 election, it found none in the past three citywide elections, according to court documents.
Commissioner Lisa Deeley testified at a hearing last week before Common Pleas Court Judge Anne Marie Coyle that she didn't think the process was necessary because poll workers had been better trained and any unnecessary delays in counting votes could jeopardize a $5 million grant the city had obtained from the state.
In a ruling Monday, Coyle, a Republican, blasted the commission for the eleventh-hour move, charging that it could encourage fraudulent voting and that the panel had "failed to consider the harm to public perception of our electoral process that could reasonably result from Defendants’ late date public announcement of removal of their previously publicly touted and utilized Policy."
She also criticized the argument that no double votes were found in the last three city elections, which she said were "poorly attended and minor." Turnout was expected to be much higher Tuesday, with the hotly contested Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz.
Despite her remarks, Coyle ruled in the board's favor, finding it was "not remotely feasible" to order the process to be reinstated at "this late date" because it would "cause harm and hardship to the administration of electoral processes that are being employed" across the city.
The judge cited the affidavit of the deputy commissioner who said the reconciliation process "requires at the very least, advance hiring, training and deployment of at least seventy full-time workers who are willing to work continually overnight following the upcoming election."
Bluestein said the commission felt pressure from the judge's ruling to restore the procedure. "While we technically won the court case in the common pleas court, the opinion that was written was written in a way that we had no other choice but to go forward and reinstate reconciliation," he said.
Deeley, a Democrat, also voted in favor of reinstating the policy. Another Democrat, Omar Sabir, voted against doing so.
Derek Lyons, the head of the Republican group that led the lawsuit, hailed the reversal in a statement Tuesday. "Conducting the audit will protect the integrity of our count," said Lyons, a former Trump White House official who's now the CEO of Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections.
He also said his group had been trying to work with Philadelphia election officials for weeks, and "if there are delays, only the commissioners are to blame."
Matthew Sanderson, an election lawyer in Washington, predicted the change wouldn't have a huge impact on the time it takes to tally the votes, because the city has used the process before.
He said that the resumption is a net positive, because "you never want to sacrifice accuracy for speed," but that the lawsuit has put election officials in "an untenable position."
"If you really care about election security, this decision should be cheered," Sanderson said, but Republicans will use the additional delay as "cause for suspicion" even though they were the ones who demanded it.
"It has nothing to do with an actual problem," Sanderson said. "It’s about undermining faith in the election."