Ballot problems in pivotal Pennsylvania foreshadow election chaos

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Political pundits and prognosticators from across the land agree on this: As Pennsylvania goes in 2020, so goes the presidency. While some may quibble with the definitive nature of that pronouncement, few argue that Pennsylvania’s bloc of 20 electoral votes will be pivotal again this year.

In 2016 the Keystone State went for President Trump by 0.7 percent. It was the first time in almost three decades that a Republican presidential candidate had carried the state. Trump’s 44,000-vote win was working proof that, once again, every vote counted. 

So when tens of thousands of 2020 ballots began showing up with obvious errors, red flags popped up all over the rolling hills of Penn’s Woods.

Pennsylvania isn’t used to widespread early voting. In fact, this is the first general election where it’s been available to the commonwealth’s 9 million voters. During the primary — held on its latest date in recent history, in June, because of the pandemic — there were more than a few glitches. Folks prayed the kinks would be worked out by the time the general election rolled around.

Then the U.S. Attorney in Harrisburg announced that he’d discovered a batch of military mail-in ballots, virtually all of them marked for Donald Trump, in a trash can in northeast Pennsylvania.

Shortly thereafter, in the opposite corner of the state in Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh and its suburbs, nearly 30,000 voters got the wrong ballot.

This is the same county where one of its left-wing council members recently posted pictures of herself and two other county Democrats in the nude as a way of highlighting “naked ballots.” They’ve already had their share of unusual occurrences this election cycle, but this was an additional challenge. 

Nobody alleged fraud; it was a technical error by an Ohio company hired to print and distribute the ballots. But it was a gigantic snafu without an obvious solution nonetheless. 

While heads were shaking, the same Ohio vendor was in the process of sending out another roughly 20,000 Allegheny County ballots. They were destroyed. In a bizarre and ironic twist, technical problems with this firm also delayed the mailing of 50,000 ballots in neighboring Westmoreland County. 

Allegheny County began by sending out a second set of ballots containing the correct lists of candidates. There was a problem with this solution, however. People had already voted using the incorrect ballots. This set up a number of unacceptable possibilities. Voters potentially could have voted more than once, or voted and not had their vote counted. The county didn’t follow the Pennsylvania Election Code, but in fairness, there wasn’t any instruction in the code for this particular issue. 

Local Democrats began fighting among themselves over who was to blame for the mess. Others watched what was unfolding with both alarm and bemusement. President Trump tweeted about it. 

Enter two Republican congressional candidates and election law expert Thomas W. King III,  an attorney who filed a federal court action on behalf of candidates Sean Parnell and Luke Negron. Named as defendants were Allegheny County Council Members, including the one who had given voters more to look at than many would have preferred. 

King’s goal was clear. “We simply wanted to insure that every vote that should be counted is counted, but that no one votes twice and that no voter is denied their right to vote. … Because there is no process to handle this problem in the Pennsylvania Election Code, we really had to go to court in order to ensure an orderly and legal process for resolving it.” 

The left piled on. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and some local Democratic pols became intervenors in the case. The usual suspects, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Common Cause, filed amicus briefs. 

After several days of legal wrangling and negotiations between King and the various Democratic lawyers, the plaintiffs emerged with a consent order signed by federal Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan.

King was pleased with the final result, noting: “Sean Parnell and Luke Negron demonstrated true leadership in challenging this mailed-ballot problem and pursuing a solution to ensure that every vote will be properly cast and counted in Allegheny County.”

Supporting the litigation was the Amistad Project of the St. Thomas More Society. Their director, a former state attorney general and now law professor, said: “Ballots for this year’s election are integral to our fundamental rights as citizens and their integrity are essential.” 

All should be well that ends well. But just over the border in Ohio, 50,000 Buckeye State voters received faulty ballots. In New York, it was nearly twice that many.

Universal mail voting isn’t as easy as it looks. Proponents argue that some states have been doing it for years. That’s a fact. However, the key phrase is “for years.” Washington state is often cited as an example of early voting by mail. They’ve been voting by mail for almost 10 years. But their vote-by-mail system wasn’t built overnight.

“We’ve been at it for a decade,” said Julie Wise, director of elections for the state’s largest county. “It’s not going to be an easy lift to make that transition (to mail-in voting). … It’s not going to be pretty.” Ms. Wise scores the understatement of this political year.

“Pretty” obviously isn’t the goal. A secure election — in which every vote that should be cast is, and every properly cast ballot is counted — is the goal. Even without addressing the issues surrounding fraud and the potential for it, the administrative problems of voting by mail for the first time present a huge challenge to achieving that vital objective.

Perhaps introducing it in the biggest election of our history was not the best idea.

Charlie Gerow, first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, has held national leadership positions in several Republican presidential campaigns. A nationally recognized expert in strategic communications, he is CEO of Quantum Communications, a Pennsylvania-based media relations and issue advocacy firm. Follow him on Twitter @Charlie_Gerow.

Tags 2020 presidential election by-mail voting Donald Trump Early voting Pennsylvania swing states

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