Elec­tion result still pend­ing

Ch­ester County Board of Elec­tions rules on pro­vi­sional bal­lots in 156th state Leg­isla­tive District

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Rel­la­han and Lu­cas Rodgers mrel­la­han@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com, lrodgers@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com

The fi­nal result of the state rep­re­sen­ta­tive elec­tion for Penn­syl­va­nia’s 156th Leg­isla­tive District has yet to be de­cided, but the process for de­ter­min­ing the win­ner has moved one step closer to­ward com­ple­tion.

The Ch­ester County Board of Elec­tions, which is com­posed of the three county com­mis­sion­ers, met Tues­day morn­ing to hear ar­gu­ments on whether a num­ber of pro­vi­sional bal­lots cast in the 156th District should be ac­cepted or re­jected.

State Rep. Dan Truitt, R-156, of East Goshen, and West Ch­ester Mayor Carolyn Comitta, a Demo­crat who chal­lenged Truitt in this year’s elec­tion, each at­tended the meet­ing with their at­tor­neys. Ac­cord­ing to un­of­fi­cial elec­tion re­sults posted on Ch­ester County’s web­site on the even­ing of Elec­tion Day, Truitt was on track to be re-elected to a fourth term in the state House, as he was ahead of Comitta by 78 votes. Truitt gar­nered a to­tal of 18,196 votes on Elec­tion Day; Comitta re­ceived a

to­tal of 18,118 votes, ac­cord­ing to the un­of­fi­cial re­sults.

How­ever, Comitta now ap­pears to be ahead of Truitt by 18 votes, af­ter all of the ab­sen­tee bal­lots, in­clud­ing bal­lots sent in from Amer­i­cans liv­ing abroad or serv­ing in the mil­i­tary, had been counted. The pro­vi­sional bal­lots have not been fac­tored into these re­sults.

Out of all the pro­vi­sional bal­lots cast in the 156th District, just two were deemed valid to be in­cluded in the fi­nal re­sults by the Board of Elec­tions.

The board’s hear­ing, in the com­mis­sion­ers’ board room on the sixth floor of 313 W. Mar­ket St., be­gan at 9:30 a.m. with the an­nounce­ment by county Solic­i­tor Thomas White­man that 66 re­jected pro­vi­sional bal­lots had been chal­lenged by the Comitta cam­paign, and a de­scrip­tion by the Demo­crat’s at­tor­ney, Sam Stretton of West Ch­ester, that he had di­vided the to­tal into five cat­e­gories — 14 vot­ers who had been regis­tered through the Field Works or­ga­ni­za­tion; five who had regis­tered through the state De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion; seven col­lege stu­dents; one East Goshen voter who tried to change her reg­is­tra­tion on­line; and the re­main­ing 39 other re­jected vot­ers.

The de­ci­sion was made to try to ad­dress each cat­e­gory sep­a­rately, in­stead of tak­ing each in­di­vid­ual and re­view­ing the de­ci­sion to re­ject their bal­lots.

By the end of the hear­ing, which lasted well into the af­ter­noon, the Board of Elec­tions had ruled to ac­cept two of the pro­vi­sional bal­lots as valid, and deny 19 pro­vi­sional bal­lots as in­valid. Stretton with­drew the chal­lenges to the re­main­ing re­jected pro­vi­sional bal­lots, so they will not be counted.

Pro­vi­sional bal­lots are given to vot­ers who go to vote on Elec­tion Day, but whose names do not ap­pear in the precinct poll lists as hav­ing been regis­tered be­fore

the Oct. 11 dead­line. They are al­lowed to cast a bal­lot, and af­ter­wards staff from the county’s Of­fice of Vot­ers Ser­vices de­cides whether or not their reg­is­tra­tions were valid and if their votes could be in­cluded in the to­tal.

The 66 chal­lenged bal­lots were win­nowed down from sev­eral more iden­ti­fied on Elec­tion Day. They have been un­der seal since Elec­tion Day, with no one know­ing how the bal­lots were cast in he 156th District — for Truitt, for Comitta, or for nei­ther. Thus, the num­ber of newly ac­cepted bal­lots may ei­ther widen Comitta’s lead once counted, swing the elec­tion to Truitt, or have no sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect.

“We don’t know the con­tents of any of the bal­lots,” ex­plained Kara Rahn, di­rec­tor of Voter Ser­vices.

The one in­di­vid­ual voter who tes­ti­fied at the hear­ing was Hol­lie Mar­celle of East Goshen, who had pre­vi­ously been regis­tered in Philadel­phia. She said she tried to change her vot­ing ad­dress at an on­line site run by Pen­ndot, and fol­lowed up with Rahn be­fore the elec­tion.

Rahn tes­ti­fied that she checked with the De­part­ment of State’s elec­tion bureau and was told that Pen­ndot claimed that there had been an er­ror in reg­is­ter­ing Mar­celle. Al­though Rahn said she had no doc­u­mented proof of the mis­take, or of Mar­celle’s reg­is­tra­tion, even­tu­ally the board de­cided to al­low her vote to stand.

“Your vote counts,” Com­mis­sion­ers’ Chair­man Ter- ence Farrell, told a vis­i­bly re­lieved Mar­celle.

The is­sue with the 14 vot­ers signed up by grass­roots voter reg­is­tra­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing field works, con­cerned whether they had been re­ceived by the De­part­ment of State prior to the Oct. 11 dead­line. They were not re­ceived by Vot­ers Ser­vices un­til Oct. 17, along with more than 1,000 oth­ers.

Rahn said she re­jected the reg­is­tra­tions af­ter re­view­ing them with her as­sis­tant di­rec­tor, Bill Christ­man. She said there was not hard enough ev­i­dence that they were re­ceived in Harrisburg be­fore the dead­line.

But Stretton ar­gued that an of­fi­cial with the De­part­ment of State had ver­i­fied that they were, al­though that of­fi­cial did not come to tes­tify be­cause of the on­go­ing work in cer­ti­fy­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Harrisburg. Guy Donatelli, Truitt’s at­tor­ney with the law firm of Lamb McEr­lane, how­ever, ob­jected to the ver­i­fi­ca­tion as “un­re­li­able.”

The de­ci­sion to ac­cept or re­ject the chal­lenged pro­vi­sional bal­lots can now be ap­pealed by ei­ther side to the Court of Com­mon Pleas, which would con­duct a fur­ther hear­ing. The par­ties have un­til Nov. 28 to ap­peal, and a fi­nal de­ci­sion on the bal­lots could run into De­cem­ber. Once the bal­lots have been of­fi­cially ac­cepted or re­jected, Vot­ers Ser­vices would run the new count and cer­tify the re­sults — at which time the loser could, if he or she chose, ask for a man­ual re­count.

Comitta said her in­ten­tion was that she and her team would do ev­ery­thing they could to make sure ev­ery valid bal­lot is counted. She said this hear­ing was an im­por­tant step in this process.

Truitt said the par­ties in­volved are still work­ing their way through this process, and it’s a nec­es­sary step. He said he be­lieves a hand re­count is ex­tremely likely for this elec­tion, but it’s not his de­ci­sion alone to make. Truitt said he and his team knew this elec­tion would be close, but they didn’t think it would be quite this close. The mar­gin of dif­fer­ence could be as close as one vote in some of the precincts in the 156th District, he said.

This isn’t the first time the rul­ings on pro­vi­sional bal­lots have been chal­lenged in an elec­tion for the 156th state House seat. In an ex­tremely close race for the seat in 2006, the out­come of the elec­tion ul­ti­mately flipped af­ter all of the valid pro­vi­sional and ab­sen­tee bal­lots were counted.

Repub­li­can can­di­date

Shan­non Royer was the pre­sump­tive win­ner of the 156th state House seat by a mar­gin of 19 votes, ac­cord­ing to un­of­fi­cial re­sults re­leased on the even­ing of Elec­tion Day, Nov. 7, 2006. How­ever, af­ter the pro­vi­sional and ab­sen­tee bal­lots were counted, and a se­ries of hear­ings and a re­count were held, the Demo­cratic can­di­date, Bar­bara McIl­vaine Smith, was de­clared the win­ner, with a lead of 28 votes. McIl­vanie Smith rep­re­sented the 156th District un­til 2010, when Truitt de­feated her.

Truitt is cur­rently serv­ing his third term in the state House. Comitta has been mayor of West Ch­ester since 2010 and is cur­rently serv­ing her sec­ond term.

The 156th District cov­ers the bor­ough of West Ch­ester and the town­ships of Birm­ing­ham, East Goshen, Thorn­bury, West­town, as well as the north­ern sec­tion of West Goshen.

MICHAEL P. REL­LA­HAN — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

At­tor­ney Sam Stretton, stand­ing, presents ar­gu­ments per­tain­ing to the va­lid­ity of pro­vi­sional bal­lots cast in the 156th state Leg­isla­tive District, dur­ing a meet­ing in the county com­mis­sion­ers’ board room Tues­day.

The fi­nal result of the state rep­re­sen­ta­tive elec­tion for Penn­syl­va­nia’s 156th Leg­isla­tive District has yet to be de­cided in the race be­tween Demo­cratic West Ch­ester Mayor Carolyn Comitta, left, and state Rep. Dan Truitt, R-156.

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