Updated: 11:45 p.m.
Pennsylvania Republicans are claiming victory in a key special election for a vacant seat in Bucks County’s notoriously moderate 18th state House district.
Democrats, meanwhile, say the election should have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic that has effectively locked down the commonwealth, and called the entire process a “disgraceful power grab” by Republicans.
The results haven’t yet been certified by the Department of State, but according to unofficial returns shared by Bucks County Spokesman Larry King, Republican K.C. Tomlinson won at least 3,826 votes to Democrat Howie Hayes’ 3,343.
Two precincts, Lower Middle #1 and Lower Middle #2, hadn’t reported results as of 11:30 p.m. King could not immediately say what the delay was.
Tomlinson, a funeral director, is a lifelong Bensalem resident and daughter of a state senator.
Hayes, a union plumber and relative newcomer to the district, released a statement late on Tuesday saying, “This was a hard-fought race and we’re not going to let off the gas.” A spokesman did not clarify whether Hayes was conceding.
The election was seen as a bellwether for November’s general election, as well as a crucial part of Democrats’ strategy to flip nine seats and reclaim the state House. And though it was expected to be the closest, it wasn’t wasn’t the only one happening Tuesday — special elections in the HD-8 and HD-58 also went to Republicans.
Voters went to the polls under unprecedented circumstances.
The entire commonwealth has been effectively shut down since Monday afternoon in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Residents of Bucks County, which is near the epicenter of Pennsylvania’s worst outbreak, were advised to quarantine and close non-essential businesses on Sunday night.
The candidates for the 18th District — which encompasses only the municipality of Bensalem — both spent Election Day traveling from polling place to polling place, handing out sanitizer and bumping elbows instead of shaking hands.
Asked how they feel about the timing of the election, they said the past week has been stressful as the number of COVID-19 cases has mounted.
“Just trying to get through the day as safe as possible,” Tomlinson said at a stop to a polling place.
Hayes, who was also visiting voters, felt similarly.
“The wheels of democracy keep turning. It is what it is and we’re here,” he said.
Sanitizer-toting candidates weren’t the only signs of an atypical special election day in Pennsylvania’s 18th House district.
With schools empty of students, the polls there were unusually quiet. Most poll workers wore rubber gloves and periodically wiped down tables with disinfectant.
Voters didn’t often linger to chat, and if they did, they hovered a few feet from the people they were talking to. Many, like Toby and Stuart Kahn, brought their own pens.
The Kahn’s have been hearing about the virus “constantly,” Stuart said. Toby added, “We have kids all over the country and they keep calling us making sure we’re okay.”
“We canceled our whole life and we’re housebound,” he added.
The question of whether the election would even be held was in flux until late the night before.
Hours later, Judge Jeffrey Trauger denied it, writing that the court could “find no legal authority for the relief requested, and counsel for the Board of Elections could not cite to any statute or decisional law expressly empowering this court to stay or postpone a duly constituted legislative election.”
Trauger directed the board to “continue all necessary safety measures, including but not limited to the provision of hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes, rubber gloves, masks and signage reminding voters of any recommended and appropriate social distancing.”
Felix Romero, the judge of elections for the Lower East No. 4 precinct, says he was nervous as Election Day started.
Right off the bat, he had a problem: All of his scheduled poll workers called off, and he had to manage the early votes on his own before the county elections board could dispatch replacements.
But as the afternoon rolled around, he said things were going well — both with sanitizing efforts, and with the new paper ballot voting machines the county is using for the first time.
Around 1 p.m. he said around 6% of his precinct’s registered voters had turned out — which he estimated was a bit lower than a typical special election, but better than he’d expected during a global pandemic.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised that people are coming out in spite of all the fears that are present and the reality of those fears,” he said.
That’s an assessment many poll workers and local politicians shared — though some were more satisfied with the outcome than others.
Jesse Sloane, a Democratic Bensalem Township Councilmember, said over the last week, he repeatedly called House GOP Leader Mike Turzai — who controls the election date — to ask him to delay it.
“We have a large population of elderly citizens here,” he said. “We also have people who are immunocompromised, we have parents of immunocompromised children, we have people who take care of their elderly parents, and a lot of them are worried about this virus going around.”
Sloane said he believes Turzai’s decision not to move the election was political.
“Postponing the election could coincide it with the primary election, and that would potentially benefit Democratic candidates,” he said.
He’s not the only Democrat raising that concern. The state House Democratic caucus issued a statement accusing Turzai of ignoring coronavirus concerns to “steal” the election.
Turzai has previously said he made the decision not to postpone the election after consulting with longtime chamber parliamentarian Clancy Myer, who wrote that he believes changing the election would be too confusing, especially as absentee ballots had already been submitted.
“It is not only not advisable, but also counterproductive to issue a new writ of election establishing an election date later this spring,” he said.
For the most part, the voters who turned out said they weren’t terribly concerned about contracting coronavirus at the polls.
Toby and Stuart Kahn, the couple with children worried about their well-being, said they felt strongly enough about supporting Tomlinson to venture outside their self-quarantine.
“I’m just looking for K.C. to carry on the tradition of her predecessor,” Stuart Kahn said, referring to former 18th District Representative Gene DiGirolamo, who left the seat after being elected as a county commissioner.
“We’ve known [DiGirolamo] for years and he’s a great person, and I know K.C.’s dad and he’s a great person,” he said.
Toby Kahn, who noted she is a registered Democrat, concurred.
Brandie Page, a 34-year-old first grade teacher who has been holding classes remotely for the last week, said she too felt she could still do her civic duty safely.
She supported Hayes, explaining that she feels the district currently has “a sense of nepotism, and just this idea of entitlement and not listening to the public, not listening to the people.”
“Some candidates,” she said, “just wall themselves off and take care of their own.”