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Trump’s claim of Pa. voter fraud is 2016 déjà vu

President Donald Trump’s unproven charge that voter fraud is widespread nationally, including in Pennsylvania, is a dressed-up page from his pre-election playbook of four years ago.

This time, however, the Republicans have gone to court in Pennsylvania, bringing legal action against state and county election officials over ballot drop boxes.

The GOP claims the defendants have “sacrificed the sanctity of in-person voting at the altar of unmonitored mail-in voting and have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted in the forthcoming general election.”

No ruling has been made on the lawsuit, but one is expected before the Nov. 3 general election in which Trump is being challenged in his re-election bid by Democrat Joe Biden.

The voting landscape has changed dramatically in Pennsylvania during the intervening four years. Now, in the midst of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, thousands more voters will cast their ballots by mail rather than physically show up at the polls on Election Day.

A new law allows Pennsylvanians to cast mail-in ballots without the need for a legitimate excuse as is the case for absentee ballots. There are still absentee ballots, and those who will be away from their voting district or have a physical incapacitation can still choose to submit one of these. There is virtually no difference between the mail-in and absentee ballots, according to election officials.

While he was campaigning in Western Pennsylvania in 2016, Trump, without substantiation, charged that the state was primed for widespread voter fraud, especially in metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia. “The cheating is what they do - we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the job here in Pennsylvania,” he said. He claimed that if he lost Pennsylvania, it would be because of voter fraud. As it turned out, Trump won Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes by about 44,000 votes.

That was the last we heard from the then-newly elected president about voter fraud in Pennsylvania until the 2020 campaign started to heat up with the widespread anticipation of voting by mail.

Trump had made his incendiary comments in 2016 when he was trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by about 9 to 10 percentage points deep into the election campaign. Of course, the polls were wrong, and now they are showing Biden with a lead in Pennsylvania with Trump and his supporters predicting a similar outcome this year despite the polls.

Back in 2016, Trump called on volunteers to be poll-watchers. He encouraged law enforcement officers, such as sheriffs, police chiefs and “everybody” to be on the lookout for voter fraud and impersonation. He’s renewed this call in 2020, and Republicans want to allow poll-watchers who don’t live in a voting district to travel to any district within the state.

Trump was critical that Pennsylvania’s voter identification law was struck down in a court decision in 2014, calling it “shocking” that the law did not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

In May 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court to overturn the voter ID law. The law was permanently blocked in the spring of 2014 after then-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett declined to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that the law was unconstitutional.

All of this is not to say that Philadelphia has not had its share of shady election episodes. In 2015, during the Philadelphia primaries, four local election officials were charged with casting extra votes to balance their numbers.

In 2008, 1,500 Philadelphia ballots were sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to be investigated. Another 8,000 were deemed to be suspect. No fraud was discovered, and no charges were filed.

Examples of widespread in-person voter fraud are rare these days because of stronger polling site safeguards and oversight. In a study, Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt found 31 possible instances of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion ballots cast during a 14-year period (2000-14). Just one was in Pennsylvania.

But that study was undertaken before the expected heavy reliance on mail-in balloting for this election and concerns over mail delivery speed, dropboxes, extended deadlines and other issues.

The modern playbook of how the results of many fewer in-person ballots and their impact on election outcomes raises many question marks. The answers probably won’t be known for weeks after Nov. 3.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com