Judge considers validity of 14 stray ballots in 156th District

     West Chester mayor and Democratic candidate for the 156th district, Caroyln Comitta, in the Chester County Justice Center Thursday. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    West Chester mayor and Democratic candidate for the 156th district, Caroyln Comitta, in the Chester County Justice Center Thursday. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    A neck-and-neck state House race in Chester County may have exposed a gray area in Pennsylvania’s election law — leaving 14 provisional ballots in murky territory.

    Both candidates for the 156th Legislative District, covering West Chester, were in Chester County Common Pleas Court Thursday to argue about whether these ballots — and one other — should count.

    Many of the votes in question were cast by Chester County residents registered to vote by Field Works, a national left-leaning advocacy group that is currently under investigation for voter fraud in Pennsylvania.

    Last week, the Chester County board of elections rejected provisional ballots from 14 people the group registered because the county did not receive them until after the deadline to register.

    “We believed that they registered appropriately, that they cast their ballots and they should be counted,” said Democratic candidate and West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta, who appealed the board’s decision.

    At issue is a common practice in Pennsylvania — voters or organizations sending their registration forms to the Pennsylvania Department of State rather than to their county voter services agencies.

    Field Works mailed these and thousands of other Pennsylvania voter registration forms to the Department of State, which oversees elections in the state.

    “We accept voter registrations from everyone,” be it individuals or voter registration drives, testified Jessica Mathis, chief of the division of election services for the department, during Thursday’s hearing. Mathis said that practice has been in place since she started in the office nine years ago.

    Pennsylvania’s labyrinthine and dense election code does allow voters to submit registrations to various state entities that provide social services for veterans or those with disabilities, as well as Orphans’ Courts. Those agencies then forward them to the relevant county-based voter offices; the Department of State, however, is not mentioned explicitly as an accepting agency.

    In this case, Mathis said, the department received them on time and mailed them on to Chester County, which recieved the ballots on Oct. 17, six days past the deadline.

    Judge Jacqueline Cody must decide whether the department is allowed to officially receive them — and therefore whether the registrations are timely.

    “It’s not like they dropped them off at Wawa,” she quipped during the hearing.

    Still, there’s enough gray area to bring both parties to court, and Cody asked lawyers to submit additional case law by Monday. Election lawyers consulted said they felt the Department of State’s accepting the registrations is squarely within popular interpretation of the law.

    “My last six years in government, I find that’s not uncommon,” said the 156th’s Republican incumbent state Rep. Dan Truitt. “Practices are put into place that are inconsistent with state law but if no one ever challenges it, it never gets sorted out.”

    Truitt now trails by 18 votes in the race. He said once these ballots are hashed out and the results certified, he’s going to challenge the result.

    “It doesn’t matter if I want a recount, there are 18,000 people who voted for me who want a recount,” he said, noting that even if all of the provisional ballots are counted and increase his opponent’s lead, he’s still only down 33 votes, or “one 10th of 1 percent” of the 36,000 votes cast in the race.

    As for the other local Field Works registrations, more than 1,000 were deemed valid by Delaware County — and those voters’ ballots counted.

    Cody is not expect to rule on the Chester County ballots before Monday. The legitimacy of one additional provisional ballot, filed by a voter who had erroneously registered in Montgomery County but voted in West Chester, will also be decided.

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