BEDFORD COUNTY SEAL

The Bedford County commissioners on Tuesday hired a Pittsburgh-based law firm as legal counsel for a lawsuit filed by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, the national Republican Party and four western Pennsylvania members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. John Joyce.

The Trump campaign last month sued the 67 county election boards in Pennsylvania and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to force changes to how the state collects and counts mail-in ballots.

“The Trump campaign filed a suit against every county and (the Commonwealth) regarding mail-in and absentee voting,” Commissioner Josh Lang said. “The firm that is representing us is representing many counties in the suit.”

The commissioners approved Steven B. Silverman from the firm Babst, Calland, Clements and Zomnir as legal counsel.

Commissioner Deb Baughman, chairwoman of the board of elections, said the county’s solicitor, Dean Crabtree, recommended the firm.

A Pennsylvania law passed last year expanded mail-in ballot options to all voters. Previously, a specific reason was needed to cast an absentee ballot.

The new law, coinciding with concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, prompted voters to cast more than 1.5 million mail-in ballots during the June 2 primary election, according to the state’s elections office.

The lawsuit argues some of the procedures in handling the ballots implemented by some counties were not legal, including allowing voters to drop off completed ballots at collection sites without sending them or handing them directly to county elections offices.

Bedford County had drop-off boxes at the second floor entrance to the courthouse. The lawsuit does not say whether it alleges a drop-off box at the courthouse was in violation, but alleges boxes at other locations, such as shopping centers and retirement homes, were in violation.

The plaintiffs also want an order to prevent counting ballots that lack secrecy envelopes or have certain marks on them, and want poll watchers to be able to monitor vote counting outside the counties where they live.

Lang said the county doesn’t believe it violated any law during the spring.

“We believe we have been doing everything correctly,” he said.

Former commissioner Paul Crooks attended the meeting and questioned why the county was spending money on a law firm when it doesn’t believe it has done anything wrong.

“I don’t see why we have to spend money we don’t have when we have been doing everything correctly,” he said, noting the county’s drop-off boxes were at the courthouse.

Lang responded by saying the county must still go through the legal process as defendants in the suit, while the commissioners added the suit includes more than just the issue regarding drop box locations.

The firm’s billing rates range from $160 to $705 per hour, depending on the expertise and experience of the attorney performing the service. Steven Silverman, the lead attorney handling the suit, has a rate of $420 per hour, while three other attorneys listed as likely assisting in the work have rates ranging from $185 to $240, according to an engagement letter signed by the commissioners.

Counties will be billed on a prorata basis.

Commissioner Barry Dallara said the law firm also will keep the county up to date on any changes in regulations at the state level.

“We’re concerned about how quickly any changes they are going to implement at the state level will be passed to us,” he said.

Dallara added that the county needs a clear outline of how to implement mail-in ballots by the end of September, otherwise it will be “almost impossible” for the county to implement new procedures and properly educate the public on those voting procedures prior to the November election.

Dallara added a number of voters are interested in mail-in ballots, particularly due to the coronavirus pandemic, while others question their security.

“A lot of folks are concerned about going to the polls,” he said. “A lot are concerned about never using a mail-in ballot because they think it’s ripe for fraud and deceit.”

The county’s election officials in June said all mail-in ballots cast in the county were handled in a secure manner, the same as ballots cast at the polls.

The firm will also represent the county in a counter-petition that filed by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, which aims to allow counties to collect mail ballots at drop boxes, extend the mail ballot deadline and require counties to give voters a chance to fix mistakes on their ballots.

Contact Will DeShong at wdeshong@bedfordgazette.com; 623-1151, ext. 150.

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