In a landmark ruling Thursday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made it easier for voters there to cast their ballots by mail. That could turn out to be one of the most consequential rulings this election year when voting by mail has sparked intense debate. President Trump says voting by mail is harmful to our democracy and his election prospects. Democrats say it allows more voters to participate. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a third of registered voters told CBS News pollsters they plan to vote by mail - more than ever before. Clashes over voting rules are raging in state courts and legislatures, perhaps nowhere more than Pennsylvania, the perennial swing state, the first to allow limited mail-in voting more than a century ago. We went to see how this battle for the ballot is playing out in the cradle of our democracy, Philadelphia.
Bill Whitaker: What keeps you up at night?
Al Schmidt: Being an election administrator in one of the largest cities in the country, in one of the fewest swing states in the country.
Bill Whitaker: Keeps you up at night?
Al Schmidt: It does.
Al Schmidt is one of three commissioners who run elections in Philadelphia and the lone Republican.
Al Schmidt: It's just that there's a lot more scrutiny with this one.
At a public meeting two weeks ago, held in an open warehouse to allow for social distancing, the commissioners weren't feeling a lot of brotherly love from voters.
Voter at public meeting: Voters need to know. They want to vote-by mail, they don't know about dropboxes, they don't know about early voting, they don't know anything. It seems like this body can't help me? Where can I go for assistance? So I'm just gonna get the deer in the headlights thing? Is that how it works? Somebody help me.
With the presidential election just weeks away the sad truth was Al Schmidt and his fellow commissioners couldn't offer much help.
Commissioner Lisa Deeley: Thank you for your comment.
Because they didn't have the answers themselves: what was the deadline for requesting and returning mail-in ballots? Would there be dropboxes for voters to drop off their ballots? Lawsuits and legislative wrangling kept those and other issues up in the air until just three days ago when the state Supreme Court ruling provided some answers. Because the Postal Service admits there will be mail delays, ballots arriving up to three days after Election Day will be counted. Dropboxes are allowed. And a slightly relieved commissioner Al Schmidt can now get to work.
Al Schmidt: Not only do we have vote-by-mail in Pennsylvania now, which is pretty new, we have a whole series of election reforms that are new. We have voting technology that is pretty new. And it's taking place in this environment with the COVID-19 concerns that have limited our ability to use polling places. There's all sorts of challenges all aligning for this election cycle.
The biggest challenge: voting by mail. A new election law allows every registered voter to mail in ballots. It was first rolled out for the June primary - as the pandemic raged, in the midst of racial protests. It was a bumpy rollout. Because of the virus, the primary was postponed five weeks. The day before the election, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf extended the deadline for some counties to return their ballots. Despite the bumps, 175,000 Philadelphians voted by mail.
Al Schmidt: We had just an extraordinary interest in mail-in voting.
Bill Whitaker: Did you notice a pattern as to who is choosing to vote by mail?
Al Schmidt: We did. Philadelphia is roughly seven Democrats for every one Republican. When we took a look at who applied to vote by mail, that disparity was 17 to one, 17 Democrats applied to vote by mail for every one Republican who voted by mail.
Angelique Hinton: Vote like your life depends on it and your rights depend on it, 'cause they do.
Angelique Hinton is working to make sure the voices of Philadelphia are heard in November.
Angelique Hinton to voter: So if you fill this out, then we can get this information to the commissioner's office.
Voter: Ok, thank you.
She's working for a nonprofit, non-partisan program to get out the vote, especially from young people and people of color.
Voter: I'm just hesitant about the mail-in.
Angelique Hinton to voter: Well as far as what are you nervous about, like mailing it in?
Voter: Yeah will it count?
In the confusion of the June primary, almost 6,000 of Philadelphia's mail-in ballots were rejected because they arrived after the extended deadline. So Hinton reminds voters to get their ballots in by Election Day.
Angelique Hinton: I'd make sure to get it in as early possible if you're going to use that process.
Bill Whitaker: Why do you think vote-by-mail has become such a contentious controversial issue?
Angelique Hinton: There have been a lotta people that have been disenfranchised. And so voting by mail just gives back a lotta people, you know, the ability to vote that maybe couldn't take off work or just-- for whatever reason couldn't get there to vote on one day out of the year. And so this now provides an opportunity for so many more people to vote. And I think that that is scary to some people.
President Trump during speech: These mail-in ballots, these mail-in ballots are a disgrace and they know it.
President Trump has visited Pennsylvania four times since June. In 2016 he lost the big cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but won the rural vote in a landslide and took the state by 44,000 votes, that's less than 1%. So far this year more than 2 million Pennsylvanians have requested mail-in ballots, more than two-thirds of them Democrats. Almost every time President Trump campaigns in the state he rails against mail-in ballots.
President Trump during speech: This is just a way to steal the election and everybody knows that because the only way they are going to win is by a rigged election.
Josh Shapiro: Pennsylvania is certainly ground zero in this presidential election.
Democrat Josh Shapiro is Pennsylvania's attorney general. He's been fighting Pennsylvania Republicans and the Trump campaign over mail-in ballots since June. He won the recent round in state Supreme Court but, in federal court, the president's lawyers are seeking to ban dropboxes and lift limits on poll watchers that have been in place since 1937. Shapiro told us the behind-the-scenes legal battles are as tough as the political one between President Trump and Vice President Joe Biden playing out on center stage.
Bill Whitaker: How intense is this legal battle going on in Pennsylvania?
Josh Shapiro: Incredibly intense and you're here at a time where the president and his enablers have gone to court to actually make it harder for people to vote, Bill. They've actually gone to court to try and sow doubt in people's minds. And I'm in court right now beating back the attempts by the Trump administration and the Trump campaign to make it harder for people to vote by mail.
Shapiro says exhibit A: the president's repeated claim that there's massive fraud with vote-by-mail. It is the centerpiece of his federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania.
Josh Shapiro: And so we went to court and said, "Hey, Mr. President, put up or shut up. Demonstrate that fraud that you keep talking about as the reason for trying to undermine the vote here in Pennsylvania." And guess what? They didn't produce any fraud.
The federal court judge, a Trump appointee, has asked the president's lawyers to show reason why this case should proceed. They're back in court this week.
Josh Shapiro: They can make all the claims they want on Twitter. They can make all the claims they want in the media, no disrespect. But ultimately when you make a claim in court you're bound to have to show proof, facts, and evidence. And they have failed to produce any type of meaningful proof that demonstrates that there's this fraud or demonstrates that our statute is illegal here.
Jake Corman is the Republican Majority Leader in the Pennsylvania Senate. He supports President Trump. So you might be surprised by what the senator told us a week before the state Supreme Court decision.
Bill Whitaker: Do you believe that voting by mail is safe and secure?
Jake Corman: In the Pennsylvania system, yes.
Bill Whitaker: What do you think of the president's almost unrelenting criticism of vote-by-mail?
Jake Corman: I'm not gonna speak for the president. That's-- that's, you know-- that's his job. My job is to make sure the Pennsylvania system works. I think we are doing that. We have done that.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party claims to be a champion of vote-by-mail. It overwhelmingly passed the Republican-dominated state legislature and was signed into law by the Democratic governor in October 2019, well before the pandemic. The website of the Pennsylvania Republican Party calls mail-in-voting "safe" and "easy." When we spoke to Senator Corman, he called some of the rhetoric around mail-in ballots noise.
Jake Corman: There's a lotta noise coming from everywhere. I mean, for anyone to claim that it's not-- it's all on one side is just not paying attention. Clearly, the president has the biggest microphone. All presidents have the biggest microphone. If you're an effective policy-maker, you gotta-- you know, you listen to it to a point and then you gotta tune it out. Our job is to make sure this election comes off well and that people are confident in it.
But the tone and tenor of debate in the Pennsylvania Legislature this summer has not inspired confidence. Republicans and Democrats had been working together on legislation to fix kinks exposed in the June primary. But shortly after President Trump started blasting voting by mail in the courts and on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, state Republicans changed course and introduced amendments to the legislation that mirrored the president's goals.
Malcolm Kenyatta on Pennsylvania House floor: If anybody has two eyes and two ears they know why this amendment is being moved.
Democrats in the legislature, like Representative Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, felt blindsided and filed the case that ended up in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They argued delays in mail delivery made dropboxes a necessity and regulations on poll watchers had been a check on voter intimidation for decades.
Malcolm Kenyatta on Pennsylvania House floor: Allowing people to come from counties all across the commonwealth into places like Philadelphia will try to intimidate people from using their right to vote. We have seen these tactics before. That's why the Voting Rights Act struck down a lot of these things.
When the dust settled, Democrats won most of what they sought in the state Supreme Court last week. But after the ruling, Senate Majority Leader Corman told us he's now concerned about the security of mail-in ballots and that Senate Republicans are preparing to fight the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorney General Shapiro says he'll defend the Pennsylvania court ruling.
Josh Shapiro: I will tell ya that there's an extraordinary amount of hypocrisy that's going on right now within the Republican Party. Donald Trump and his family vote by mail.
President Trump during speech: Now the good news is we have a lot of court cases. We have one in Pennsylvania, you know that right?
The Trump campaign, the GOP, Democrats and interest groups continue battling in court in Pennsylvania and most other states.
President Trump during speech: So we'll see what happens.
Bill Whitaker: Do you expect that there will be lawsuits that will continue on Election Day?
Josh Shapiro: I can tell you my team and I, along with others around the country, are preparing-- for all kinds of outcomes. Sadly we have to fear that we have a sitting president of the United States that may take legal action to try and stop certain legal votes from being counted.
Back in Philadelphia, the election commission is taking over a larger space to process election ballots. Republican Al Schmidt told us the state Supreme Court ruling provided some clarity to the election process, but didn't allay all his concerns.
Bill Whitaker: What most concerns you?
Al Schmidt: Our republic depends on confidence in our electoral process. And there are a lot of voices across the spectrum that, intentionally or unintentionally, seem to be undermining that confidence.
But one thing he states with confidence: we all have to have patience this November.
Al Schmidt: When you have half of your voters vote by mail, when you have hundreds of thousands of votes to count, and you cannot begin counting them or even opening the envelope that those ballots are in until Election Day, you will not know the outcome on election night.
Produced by Marc Lieberman and Ali Rawaf. Associate producer, Emilio Almonte. Edited by Craig Crawford.
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