Judge hears ballot contest
Is the Pennsylvania Department of State a proper place to have voter registration forms accepted ahead of election deadlines? That is the question that Common Pleas President Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody said she will answer early next week in the battle over uncounted provision ballots in the 156th Legislative District race.
In a hearing Thursday, Cody
peppered attorneys representing candidates Carolyn Comitta and state Rep. Daniel Truitt with questions as to whether the department, headquartered in
Harrisburg, can legally accept the registration forms and thus sign a prospective voter up, or whether the only decision that counts of the local county election agency.
Addressing attorney Guy Donatelli, who represents the incumbent Republican Truitt, Cody suggested
that the department, which oversees elections in the state, might be an appropriate place for the voters in the 156th District to send a registration form.
“It’s not like they dropped (them) off at a Wawa or something,” Cody commented. “If people wanted to vote, why wouldn’t we count their vote?”
But in questioning Democratic attorney Samuel Stretton, Cody seemed pointedly interested in whether he could cite any specific law that gave the department the authority to accept registrations, or simply forward them on to the Chester County Office of Voter Services. He answered that he could not, but that it had been doing
so for almost a decade.
At issue in the hearing held in the county’s Justice Center are 14 provisional ballots that were cast in the 156th District race between Comitta and Truitt. Tallies of the results, which have not been officially certified, on election night showed Truitt ahead by 78 votes, 18,196 to Comitta’s 18,118. But after absentee and other ballots were added to the results, it was reported that Comitta had gained an 18-vote lead.
It is unknown how the voters who cast the 14 provisional ballots in question voted in the district, or whether they cast any vote for that office at all.
The county Board of Elections last week voted
to reject the provisional ballots, by a 2-1 vote. The board held that the registrations of the 14 voters had missed the Oct. 11 deadline by a day or two, since they were time-stamped by the Department of State on Oct. 12 or 13. “They were late,” said Donatelli.
Stretton argued that state officials had accepted the registration forms as proper because they came in on or before Oct. 11.
He presented testimony from Jessica Mathis, the department’s chief of election services, who had prepared an affidavit stating that the forms had been received before the deadline and should be counted as valid. Mathis said in the nine years she had been working in the agency, it was common practice to accept forms that came to its office by mail and forward them on to the local county election bureau, even if they were received after the deadline. The crucial element, she said, was whether the form had a postmark that was on or before the registration deadline.
The 14 questioned in the 156th did, she said.
Under cross examination by Donatelli, Mathis said that she had never questioned whether the practice in her office was authorized by law, or was simply a common practice. The law speaks only to whether a postmark is illegible or missing.
If Cody decides that the department is a proper place to accept registration forms and that the 14 at issue came in on or before the deadline, the provisional ballots will be added to the total. But because they remained sealed, no one can tell what impact they might have on the 156th race. If she decides the department is not authorized to do so, she may rule that the election board’s decision was proper.
She said she would likely rule early next week.
“I understand how important this is to everyone involved, but I have to follow the law,” Cody said.
Both Comitta and Truitt appeared at the hearing along with supporters, but neither addressed the court.
Truitt, of East Goshen, 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.