PHILADELPHIA — President Trump’s campaign in the crucial battleground of Pennsylvania is pursuing a three-pronged strategy that would effectively suppress mail-in votes in the state, moving to stop the counting of absentee votes before Election Day, pushing to limit how late mail-in ballots can be accepted and intimidating Pennsylvanians trying to vote early.
Election officials and Democrats in Pennsylvania say that the Trump effort is now in full swing after a monthslong push by the president’s campaign and Republican allies to undermine faith in the electoral process in a state seen as one of the election’s most pivotal, where Mr. Trump trails Joseph R. Biden Jr. by about six percentage points, according to The Upshot’s polling average.
Mail-in votes in Pennsylvania and other swing states are expected to skew heavily toward Democrats. The state is one of a handful in which, by law, mail-in votes cannot be counted until Election Day, and the Trump campaign has leaned on Republican allies who control the Legislature to prevent state election officials from bending those rules to accommodate a pandemic-driven avalanche of absentee ballots, as many other states have already done.
At the same time, the campaign has pushed litigation to curtail how late mail-in votes can be accepted, as part of a flurry of lawsuits in local, state and federal courts challenging myriad voting rules and procedures. On Wednesday evening, the Supreme Court refused to hear a fast-tracked plea from Pennsylvania Republicans to block a three-day extension of the deadline for receiving absentee ballots. But Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat who is Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, advised counties to segregate ballots received after 8 p.m. on Election Day, as the issue remains before the court.
The Trump campaign has also dispatched its officials to early voting sites, videotaped voters and even pressed election administrators in the Philadelphia area to stop people from delivering more than one ballot to a drop box.
The Trump campaign’s on-the-ground efforts in Philadelphia have already drawn a rebuke from the state attorney general, who warned that the campaign’s foot soldiers risked being charged with voter intimidation. But the Trump campaign has defied local leaders and is running a similar operation in Delaware County, one of the suburban “collar” counties around Philadelphia that have become increasingly Democratic since the 2016 election.
The campaign’s strategy is backed up by public statements from the president, who barnstormed the state on Monday and repeatedly made false claims about the security of voting in Pennsylvania along with ominous warnings.
“A lot of strange things happening in Philadelphia,” he said during a stop in Allentown. “We’re watching you, Philadelphia. We’re watching at the highest level.”
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“The Trump administration’s efforts to suppress votes amid a global pandemic fueled by their disregard for human life will not be tolerated in the birthplace of American democracy,” Mr. Krasner said. “Philadelphians from a diversity of political opinions believe strongly in the rule of law, in fair and free elections, and in a democratic system of government. We will not be cowed or ruled by a lawless, power-hungry despot. Some folks learned that the hard way in the 1700s.”
Some residents have been left bewildered by the Trump campaign’s attention this year. During the primary election over the summer, Adam S. Goodman, an insurance lawyer, posted a photo on Instagram in which he proudly held up two mail-in ballots outside a drop box. He soon found that the picture had been included in litigation the Trump campaign filed against the city. The campaign used the photo of Mr. Goodman along with other photos to say that some voters were dropping off more than one ballot at drop boxes.
But Mr. Goodman said his husband was simply standing out of the frame when the picture was taken.
“I find it very concerning that they are taking photos out of context from people’s Instagram pages or posting surveillance photos, and there’s no follow-up to determine if that’s the case,” Mr. Goodman said in an interview. “My husband didn’t want to be in the photo. He was with me, and I took a picture of the ballots.”
He called the campaign’s actions “manufacturing evidence that doesn’t exist, and that’s what concerns me.”
The intensity of the Trump campaign’s efforts in Philadelphia stems in part from the man running its Election Day operations nationwide: Michael Roman, a native Philadelphian who cut his teeth in city politics before running a domestic intelligence-gathering operation for the conservative Koch brothers. Like his boss, Mr. Roman has persistently made public statements undermining confidence in the electoral process.
Mr. Roman did not comment for this article.
In a statement, Thea McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, said: “While Democrats have attempted to force rule changes and sow chaos and confusion every step of the way, Republicans have clearly and consistently advocated for stable, understandable rules so that every voter knows how to cast their ballot and can do so with confidence it will count.”
After the June primary, the Republican strategy began in earnest, in a battle that pitted Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, against the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Because of the pandemic, states like Pennsylvania are being flooded with mail-in ballots. Local election administrators and the governor sought to allow early processing of the ballots, known as “pre-canvassing,” but Republicans attached conditions; among them, they wanted to do away with drop boxes, impose new signature-matching requirements and allow poll watchers to cross county lines, a step that good-government groups feared would invite intimidation and delays.
The state has a history of aggressive Republican tactics. In one of the more notorious episodes, Republican poll watchers stationed at a polling place at the University of Pittsburgh in 2004 began challenging the identities of large numbers of students waiting in line to vote, who had to get friends to sign affidavits for them.
Democrats were not seeking to actually scan the ballots early, as many other states are doing. Instead, they simply wanted to allow local officials to get a head start by opening envelopes and flattening the ballots, to get them ready for processing.
“This felt like a layup,” Suzanne Almeida, a lawyer for Common Cause in Pennsylvania, said, adding, “county elections officials and county commissioners were very clear about how critical this was to them.”
But the Republican maneuvers mean even those efforts will have to wait until the morning of Election Day.
“Pennsylvania did nothing” to prepare, said Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute and the former head of Denver’s election system. “The Legislature has completely failed the counties.”
As a result, Ms. Almeida said, “we’re certainly not at a place where we’re going to have results on election night.”
“There’s just no physical way,” she continued. “There’s three million people who have requested a mail-in ballot.”
The campaign also brought an array of legal maneuvers that could disqualify some mail-in ballots. It successfully sued to prevent election officials from accepting ballots that arrive without their inner envelopes, known as secrecy sleeves. A Philadelphia election official warned that the disqualification of such “naked ballots” could lead to the rejection of more than 100,000 ballots statewide. That prompted a huge voter information campaign, including a video of naked celebrities.
Republicans also challenged the installation and use of drop boxes to allow voters to avoid the Postal Service, but that challenge failed in state and federal courts.
Aggressive tactics also continue on the ground. The Trump campaign first sent poll watchers to satellite election offices in Philadelphia where voters were dropping off and filling out mail-in ballots. But those poll watchers were barred by city officials, who said monitoring of election offices fell outside sanctioned poll-watching activities.
Then the campaign began videotaping drop boxes in and around the city. This month, the Trump campaign told The New York Times that it was only aiming to find people who were delivering large numbers of ballots to the drop boxes, not people who were dropping off an extra ballot, most likely for a family member.
But that claim was false. Within days, the campaign gave images to city officials of voters dropping off two or three ballots and demanded a crackdown. The campaign has also been monitoring how drop boxes are used in nearby Delaware County.
Voting has been upended by the pandemic, and many voters are unfamiliar with the rules around drop boxes, which they may be using for the first time. But city officials have rejected the campaign’s assertions that the voters in the images are necessarily doing anything wrong. Under state law, voters can deliver only their own ballots to drop boxes, unless they are assisting a voter who has a disability or who otherwise needs assistance.
The bitterness of the campaign was on full display at a recent rally, where Mr. Trump promised to punish Pennsylvania and its governor for trying to thwart his rallies in the state.
“He shut us out, and he tried shutting us out of two other venues,” said Mr. Trump, who was not shut out and held three rallies this week in the state.
A spokeswoman for the governor denied the claims and said the president’s campaign had not contacted the governor’s office about the rallies.
Mr. Trump promised revenge nonetheless.
“I’ll remember it, Tom,” he said in Allentown. “I’m going to remember it, Tom. ‘Hello, Mr. President, this is Gov. Wolf. I need help, I need help.’ You know what? These people are bad.”
Law enforcement officials, at least in Philadelphia, were unbowed by the president’s threats.
“Keep your Proud Boys, goon squads and uncertified ‘poll watchers’ out of our city, Mr. President,” Mr. Krasner, the district attorney, said. “Break the law here, and I’ve got something for you.”