Philly commissioner says GOP is ‘playing games’ with impeachment threat over mail ballots

A person holds up a ballot from Northampton, Pa.

Pa. ballots (Matt Smith for Spotlight PA)

Philadelphia’s city commissioners say they’re unimpressed with a threat by top State House Republicans to impeach them over a recent decision to count undated mail ballots.

The threat of impeachment, which GOP leaders sent to the commissioners in a letter Friday, came two days after the commissioners voted 2-1 to count the roughly 1,300 mail ballots that had been cast in Philadelphia’s primary election this month without dates on their envelopes.

“Really, this is nothing more than yet another effort to grandstand and sow doubt in the electoral process while scoring political points at Philadelphia’s expense,” City Commissioner Lisa Deeley said in a statement. “Instead of working to address an issue that could disenfranchise over 1,300 Philadelphians, they are playing games.”

The ballots would be extremely unlikely to change the results of any of the city or statewide races.

In their letter — which was signed by every member of the House GOP leadership, as well as State Government Committee Chair Seth Grove — the Republicans argued that the Philly commissioners are imposing their own “personal preference” in the administration of the city’s elections.

They said that if Deeley and Omar Sabir, the two Democratic commissioners, did not reconsider their votes, they would move to impeach them.

The state Constitution does, indeed, give the legislature power to remove virtually any public official from office. As in Congress, a successful impeachment requires support from only a simple majority of the House, though two-thirds of the Senate must also sign off on the effort for a public official to actually be removed from office.

Republicans have long-standing majorities in both Pennsylvania chambers, but do not hold two-thirds of the Senate, making the commissioners’ removal unlikely even if the Senate were to take up the issue. Spokespeople for Senate GOP leaders did not immediately return requests for comment.

House Republicans said their statement was primarily prompted by a statement Deeley made during the commissioners’ vote to count the undated mail ballots.

She referred to a decision the state Supreme Court made after the 2020 election. In a divided opinion, three justices said undated mail ballots should be counted, three said they should not, and the seventh, Justice David Wecht, wrote that ballots without dates should be counted in the 2020 election, but not in the future.

Counties adjusted their mail ballot designs after that ruling, getting rid of fields on the envelope that the justices had deemed superfluous, such as addresses and printed names.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, during deliberation on the undated ballots, Deeley said that “because of one justice’s opinion, the date is still on the envelope,” and added that she thinks missing dates are a “minor technicality” that should continue to be discounted, lest voters get confused by changing rules.

Al Schmidt, the sole Republican city commissioner, voted against counting the ballots. He told the Inquirer that while he agrees with Deeley and Sabir in principle, he felt that counting the ballots was contrary to the court’s decision, and that he had “no choice” but to oppose his colleagues’ decision.

In response to the impeachment threat, Deeley stood by her decision.

“I believe, the same way I believed in November, that we should not punish these voters, who did everything else right, from having their votes counted due to a minor technicality,” she said. “Furthermore, since the Supreme Court allowed these to count in November, we should stay consistent so as to not confuse the voters.”

Philadelphia commissioners aren’t the only county officials who have decided to tally undated mail ballots. According to the Inquirer, all four suburban counties bordering Philadelphia have made the decision.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for the State House Republicans, said caucus leaders haven’t yet pursued a similar impeachment effort against those county leaders because they aren’t sure what factors went into their decisions.

“We’re looking into that,” he said.

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