Election result still pending
Chester County Board of Elections rules on provisional ballots in 156th state Legislative District
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.
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.
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.