Pa. announces recount in statewide judicial race with Democrat holding narrow lead

Shown is a mail-in election ballot in Glenside, Pa., Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Shown is a mail-in election ballot in Glenside, Pa., Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

More than a week after Election Day, the Pennsylvania Department of State has confirmed it is conducting a recount in the race for two open Pa. Commonwealth Court seats, because unofficial results show two of the candidates in the four-person race in a virtual dead heat.

Those candidates are Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Lori Dumas and Drew Crompton, a longtime state Senate GOP lawyer who was appointed to the court in 2019 to fill a vacancy, but faces his first test at the ballot box. Dumas appears to have won with 25.37% of the vote, but the difference between her and Crompton, now shown with 25.03%, is well within the 0.5% needed to trigger an automatic recount under Pennsylvania law.

The other two candidates for the open seats are Bradford County attorney Stacy Wallace and Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Spurgeon. Wallace, a Republican, was the top vote-getter and has therefore guaranteed herself a seat on the court, and Spurgeon’s vote deficit has knocked him out of the running.

In the commonwealth’s current election system, in-person votes tend to be counted quickly, with mail ballots trickling in later because they take longer to tabulate, and the law doesn’t allow counties to start processing them until election day.

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In both 2020 and 2021 elections, in-person votes have tended to skew toward Republicans while mail votes generally skew Democratic, creating situations where it has appeared Republicans have wide leads on election nights, but Democrats close the gap as more mail ballots are tabulated.

That happened in the Commonwealth Court race.

On election night, it looked like all the statewide judicial races — there was one open Supreme Court seat, one on the Superior Court, and two on the Commonwealth — would be won by Republicans. Some news outlets prematurely reported a clean GOP sweep. But the margins proved to be narrower as counties tabulated all of the ballots. Large, liberal-leaning Montgomery County was especially slow due to printing and scanner errors. By the end of last week, the complete unofficial vote total showed Dumas ahead by more than 15,700 votes.

Neither candidate’s campaign has responded to requests for comment, though both have weighed in on Twitter. Four days into the ballot count, as it became clear the race was in question, Crompton complained about the length of the process, saying that it’s “hard to believe that it needs to take this long.”

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A few days later, with an apparent lead, Dumas’s account posted that the campaign “would like to thank everyone for their continuous support,” and requested help cleaning up and recycling yard signs.

Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for DoS, estimated the recount will cost at least $1.3 million in taxpayer money. It will be the fifth recount triggered in a statewide race since 2004, when the process was made automatic.

Only two of those automatic recounts actually took place, though. Murren notes, an apparently losing candidate does have the power to waive a recount, if they choose. That happened in 2010, 2017, and most recently in a 2019 Superior Court race.

In the cases where recounts did happen, they confirmed the original results.

According to the commonwealth’s official election calendar, Crompton would have had until noon on Wednesday to waive the automatic recount, and apparently did not. DOS now has until Nov. 17 to formally begin the recount, and under state law will need to finish by Nov. 23.

If Crompton’s loss is confirmed, it will shift the court’s partisan balance slightly, from a seven-to-two GOP advantage to six-to-three. That doesn’t include another vacancy that will soon be left when GOP Judge Kevin Brobson departs the Commonwealth Court to take a seat on the Supreme Court.

Gov. Tom Wolf will be in charge of selecting a replacement.

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