Election 2020

Philly election warehouse adds cameras, guards to stop further security breaches

Law enforcement officials said the theft last week appears to be a random crime, unrelated to the election.

A surveillance camera unit installed outside the city's election storage where in East Falls

A surveillance camera unit installed outside the city's election storage where in East Falls

Courtesy Philadelphia City Commissioners
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Philadelphia election officials have installed security cameras outside the election board warehouse where a theft and other security breaches were revealed last week, flaring anxieties ahead of an already chaotic election.

After a laptop and USB devices disappeared from the East Falls facility last week, officials promised to beef up protocols. But the next day, a Billy Penn reporter was able to enter the warehouse unhindered and roam among hundreds of voting machines and other equipment for several minutes with no one in sight. Unused ballots from the June primary — which officials say differ in size from ballots being used in the upcoming election — sat stacked on a shelf in plain view.

In response, officials announced immediate changes, including round-the-clock police presence, a new sign-in and sign-out procedure for the building, and plans for security cameras. On Thursday, Kevin Feeley, an outside spokesperson retained by the City Commissioners, who oversee Philly elections, sent a picture to Billy Penn to confirm surveillance equipment had been installed.

City officials said the stolen materials do not compromise the integrity of the election. The district attorney’s office said police have no evidence the motive for the theft was related to the election.

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud or election tampering in Philadelphia, though isolated scandals have fuelled distrust over the years.

Last week, Republican allies of President Trump used the security breaches as ammunition to sow doubt in the election results in Pennsylvania, considered an all-important swing state in the presidential race. “Unbelievable! No security for voting machines,” tweeted Trump campaign staffer Mike Roman in response to video of the exposed warehouse.

Critics said this gash in trust could have been avoided, had the city taken proper steps to secure the facility sooner. Officials began leasing this storage facility for voting machines in 2019.

“It’s clear that they had no overall plan for security going back to last November, so the theft was certainly foreseeable,” said Rich Garella, co-founder of activist group Protect Our Vote Philly. “It’s not just the warehouse. They need to have an overall security plan that covers all their operations across the city, from end to end.”

The warehouse sits on a back road near the Schuylkill River, sharing an address with a rock climbing gym and a crossfit studio. Other businesses and an apartment building sit nearby.

Police dispatch data analyzed by Billy Penn found police responded to incidents around this address 345 times between 2016 and 2019. Most cases were false alarms — often literally, via a mistakenly tripped burglar alarm, a police spokesperson said. Some vandalism, thefts and other crimes have been reported nearby over the years.

The City Commissioners’ spokesperson said this was the first incident to occur at the warehouse.

“These types of sites can be a challenge to secure, and while I cannot speak to incidents that may have occurred outside our building, I can say again that with respect to our warehouse, we have not experienced anything like the volume you describe over the last two years,” Feeley said.

Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio said the logistical improvements are handled between the city and the landlord.

The city has already sunk considerable money into non-security-related improvements at the 76,000-square-foot warehouse.

Last year, the city outfitted the building with an electrical grid capable of powering 3,400 touchscreen voting machines around the clock. All told, electrical work, permits and overtime cost about $638,440, according to the Mayor Jim Kenney’s office.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2020 stories.

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