In this image from online video, Sally Lyall speaks to commissioners John Trescot, Ray D'Agostino and Josh Parsons during an Election Board meeting on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Seated between Lyall and Trescot is county Solicitor Jackie Pfursich. (Source: Lancaster County)
In this image from online video, Sally Lyall speaks to commissioners John Trescot, Ray D'Agostino and Josh Parsons during an Election Board meeting on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Seated between Lyall and Trescot is county Solicitor Jackie Pfursich. (Source: Lancaster County)

In a 2-1 party-line decision, the Lancaster County commissioners, in their capacity as Election Board, decided Wednesday to discontinue providing a drop box for mail-in ballots at the County Government Center.

The action was not taken through a formal motion and vote; rather it was made by what Commissioner Ray D'Agostino termed an administrative "consensus" process — the same informal process that led to the decision to install the dropbox, Commissioner Josh Parsons noted.

In this case, the consensus consisted of D'Agostino and Parsons, both Republicans, over the objections of Commissioner John Trescot, a Democrat.

It also came over the objections of more than a dozen members of the public who attended Wednesday's meeting and spoke passionately in favor of keeping the drop box and adding more of them. They included county Democratic committee members, a redistricting reform advocate and former Eastern Lancaster County School District Superintendent Bob Hollister, who is running for Congress. No member of the public spoke in favor of the removal, county Democratic Chair Diane Topakian noted.

Sally Lyall, former county Democratic chair, described the last vote her now-deceased mother cast in November 2020. The mail-in ballot didn't arrive until a week before Election Day, so her mother decided it was safer to return it by hand than trust it to the Post Office.

Lyall and her husband drove her mother to the County Government Center. The frail, elderly woman was on oxygen and used a walker, and it was all she could do just to reach the drop box by the entrance, Lyall said. There was a long line of people waiting to hand over their ballots to Elections Office staff — had her mother needed to go that route, she would have had to give up.

"Thank goodness that drop box was right there," Lyall said.

She and other speakers said libraries or municipal buildings could serve as secure, monitored locations for drop boxes. They said distributing a half dozen or so countywide would improve convenience for voters daunted by a long drive to the city or the difficulty of parking; and would not compromise security.

Government should make things easier for the voter," said Amy Ruffo, a volunteer with Fair Districts PA, citing statistics showing increases in turnout in states whose systems permit widespread voting by mail.

Hollister said drop boxes shouldn't be a partisan issue: They are a solution "that meets a lot of needs," serving voter in every age group who for one reason or another have barriers to voting in person.

Taking away the drop box sends the message that "you want to make it harder to vote," said Duncan Hopkins, an organizer who works for progressive advocacy group Lancaster Stands Up. He introduced himself as a "paid political operative," referring to Parsons' description of him on Tuesday.

In response to questions from Trescot, Board of Elections Chief Clerk Christa Miller said voters dropped several thousand ballots the drop box for the fall election, including more than 1,000 on Election Day itself.

If the Elections Office has to accept that many additional ballots in person, it will probably have to assign a temp worker to the task on Election Day and the days leading up to it, she said. She acknowledged there isn't much room to accommodate the lines that form, but said the office would "make do."

Earlier, Miller said 22,352 voters had requested mail-in ballots. or a little less than 6.5% of the 345,569 voters on the county's rolls.

Parsons and D'Agostino restated and amplified the objections to the drop box that they made at the commissioners' work session Tuesday. Parsons said he favors an election system that's mostly in-person. Again citing the case of Gov. Tom Wolf, who admitted that his wife, Frances, submitted his ballot for him — a misdemeanor under state election law — Parsons said the county has a responsibility not to create a setup that facilitates or encourages lawbreaking.

D'Agostino said elections must have internal controls to ensure elections' "veracity, integrity and transparency." Pennsylvania's 2019 election reform law, Act 77, has sown distrust, he said, pointing to a case in Western Pennsylvania in which ballots were counted differently in two districts in a single race.

It's incumbent on counties to make elections as secure as possible, he said.

The two commissioners expressed frustration with Act 77 and praised the Commonwealth Court's recent ruling declaring it unconstitutional, which D'Agostino called "one of the best decisions ever written." The Wolf administration filed an appeal that is pending before the state Supreme Court.

If people are concerned about election integrity, Trescot said, that's because spurious allegations of fraud keep being pushed. Besides, he said, the issue before the Election Board was narrow: Is there any evidence that the county's one and only drop box, which enhances convenience, has lessened security?

Dan Sweigart, a Democratic committee member, said the same: "The distrust of our elections has been sown by [former President] Trump's Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen due to massive fraud. Removing our one and only drop box will do nothing to address the problem."

More than an hour into the meeting, D'Agostino and Parsons agreed they opposed the decision. After a reporter confirmed that was indeed the Election Board's ruling on the matter, the audience expressed dismay and disbelief, leading to a cacophonous final few minutes.

"Is that what we're supposed to expect of our county government going forward?" Hopkins exclaimed. "'We already made the decision and screw you?'"

Parsons responded by saying he respected everyone who spoke sincerely and "clearly meant their comments."

"The exception of course is Duncan, who is a paid political operative with Lancaster Stands Up, which is a socialist organization," he continued. "Your comments were not helpful today. You came here to attack and for a political reason, which is to gin up your base."

Admonished by Trescot for making such a "personal attack" on Hopkins, Parsons said he has a right to call out people who try to score political points, and will continue to do so.

Sweigart then asked the two Republican commissioners if Joe Biden won the 2020 election fairly. He and Parsons accused each other of turning the conversation political, leading Sweigart to say: "You, sir, are accountable to us."

D'Agostino and Parsons said they are in fact accountable to Lancaster County's whole electorate.

"If you want to change that," Parsons said, "the election is in 2023."

(Editor's Note: This article was updated to add the number of mail-in ballots and total voters.)

Tim Stuhldreher