“The rhetoric flying around out there doesn’t match the reality,” said Geoff Brace, the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners chair, a registered Democrat. Investigations nationwide have found no evidence of voter fraud that could have swayed an election, and the same is true here. “It’s just a convenience for people,” said Timothy Benyo, the local elections director, a registered Republican. “It’s not a fraud factory.”
Ballot boxes weren’t always so controversial. When the Republican-controlled legislature approved broad mail-in voting in 2019, the state Senate’s top Republican called it “the most significant modernization of our election’s code in decades.” Drop-off voting skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly among Democrats, as Americans sought to avoid crowded polling sites.
Yet ahead of the 2020 election, former president Donald Trump and right-wing activists claimed — without evidence — that early voting is rife with cheating, and Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania pushed to tighten the rules. There are five drop boxes now open in Lehigh County. Signs at the Government Center’s 24-hour voting slot warn that depositing anyone else’s ballot without special permission is illegal.
In the lawsuit that a county judge threw out last month, the America First Legal Foundation — led by Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Trump, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff — cited an investigation by the district attorney that found 288 instances of people dropping off more than one ballot in the run-up to the November 2021 election.
Most of the offenders slipped in two, and no one carried more than six. Authorities declined to pursue any charges. “There is no scary ‘ballot harvesting’ with dump trucks full of extra ballots,” said Benyo, the election official. “These are regular people.”
For eight hours over two evenings this week, The Washington Post watched people place their votes in this historically moderate slice of Pennsylvania framed by Appalachian Mountain ridges. They were Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Some with split tickets. No one wanted to deal with the hassle of Election Day lines. Here are five of their stories.
Deborah White arrived with her husband of four decades, Lawrence, as the sun sank over the autumn foliage. She had retired from her admissions job at Lehigh University and was bound to no strict schedule. She wanted to be here, on her own time — on principle. “I’m a 68-year-old African American woman,” she said. “There was a time we couldn’t vote. I thought, ‘My God. I have to do this.’”
During the last election, White, a Democrat, used the drop box because it was convenient and she didn’t want to get covid. Now she was here to exercise a right she felt was under attack. The efforts to shrink early voting hours bothered her. Closing the slot at night, she thought, would just block voters who worked all day. “It’s dishonest,” she said, “and it’s controlling. They don’t want us to do what we are supposed to do.”
Carter Prokesch, a 23-year-old research-and-development engineer, hadn’t planned to vote at all. Then his father urged him to apply for a mail-in ballot and make his voice heard. So after work, the self-described “moderate conservative” drove to the Government Center.
He held a split ticket: A vote for Oz, the Republican for Senate, and a vote for Josh Shapiro, the Democrat for governor. “Because all of Shapiro’s commercials weren’t about attacking people,” Prokesch said.
The Republican candidate, Doug Mastriano, had chartered buses to the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that erupted in insurrection and vowed to ban abortion without exceptions, suggesting that women who underwent the procedure should be charged with murder. He campaigned at events promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Prokesch was sick of all the fighting. He wanted to be a better Christian and stand by people who treated others with respect. He’d regretted voting for Trump, he said, after watching the former president fling so many insults. Prokesch and his father were registered Republicans. His mother and twin sister were Democrats. “We don’t talk about politics,” he said.
When Lax Rode voted in the 2020 presidential election, the 38-year-old therapist had to wait in line behind 15 people. Maybe 20. It didn’t take long, but the process was strenuous compared to this: Strolling up to the drop box on a balmy evening. Practically no other humans in sight. Sliding his ballot into the glass-framed slot. Done.
“I saved time,” he said, grinning, “and time is money in this capitalist country, right?” Rode, who considers himself an Independent and prefers to keep his political decisions private, moved to the U.S. from western India in 2008. He became a naturalized citizen about four years ago and marvels at how politics have changed since then.
He has liberal clients and conservative clients. The gap between them has never seemed wider. He encourages people to stick to the facts. “Back in India, we did not have mail-in ballots,” Rode said. “You’d have to go in person. This is one of things I like here. It makes our lives more convenient.”
Mark Stein, 60, figured Allentown’s city center would be quieter on a weeknight. He was right: The history teacher at Muhlenberg College found a parking spot and cast his ballot within minutes. He enjoyed the energy of the traditional polls in this swing county — “I never missed an election,” Stein said — but the tension leading up to the midterms concerns him.
Stein, a Democrat, had heard about armed groups vowing to “monitor” voting sites, including drop boxes. He’d read that the assailant who attacked Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer had railed against liberals, Black people and Jews in blog posts.
He thought of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Mastriano, blasting his opponent, Shapiro, for sending his children to a Jewish day school. (Mastriano has said he was criticizing the school for being “expensive” and “elite,” not for any religious reason.) “As an American Jew,” Stein said, “I see a safe space being winnowed away.”
Janice Altieri, 58, is a Democrat. Her husband, Joe, 60, is a Republican. They didn’t want to have to talk to anyone about that. “Around here, a lot of people try to get you to change your vote,” said Janice, a school librarian. “They give you pamphlets,” said Joe, an engineer. “Which are ridiculous!” Janice said. “This way, you don’t have to deal with all that.”
They could have walked five minutes to the polling place by their house, but the couple preferred the ten-minute drive to the drop box. Campaigners in Lehigh County are known to ambush voters on Election Day. The pamphlets would probably be extra ridiculous this year, Janice said, considering all the conspiracy theories about election fraud.
The couple agreed: the 2020 election had not been stolen. Early voting was secure. “I voted straight Democrat,” Janice said, turning to Joe. “I didn’t even ask you! I don’t even know if our votes are matching.”