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A preview of voting headaches south of Pittsburgh

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(The Center Square) — A dramatic commissioner meeting in Washington County on Thursday night over mail-in voting displayed the tension between Pennsylvania’s historical respect for local government and the need for uniform laws and guidance from the General Assembly.

The division in Washington County started last week when commissioners voted 2-1 against letting voters “cure” mail-in ballots that had mistakes such as a missing signature or date. The Department of State warns that failing to sign and date the return envelope of a mail-in ballot will lead to it not being counted.

“I stand by the decision, I think this was a good decision,” Commissioner Chairman Nick Sherman said. “We have to move our elections forward and I think this is the right thing to do.”

Almost 100 people turned out to register their frustrations and their support of the decision. Of 35 speakers during public comment, 26 opposed the decision not to cure and eight supported it.

Several county poll workers spoke against the decision.

“As I was dutifully attending class last week … most of the people in the room felt that (decision) was extremely cruel and they really could not understand how that could be if other counties are doing it,” Mary Jane Stewart, a poll worker, said. “What is this law that allows other counties to do it, but we’re not allowed to do it?”

Pennsylvania leaves a number of election decisions up to county officials. The result has been a lack of uniformity ranging from whether to cure mail-in ballots to the use of drop boxes. A number of speakers noted that nearby Westmoreland County lets voters cure mail-in ballots.

Greene and Fayette counties, too, allow mail-in ballot curing.

“The Washington County Democratic Committee condemns in no uncertain terms the decision to suppress votes by refusing to allow any curing of mail-in ballots,” Christina Proctor, chair of the committee, said. “This decision is an unprecedented step to deny Washington County voters their constitutional right to vote.”

Other testifiers called the decision a blatant attempt to interfere with voting, political repression, sabotage, disheartening, and targeted voter suppression. They worried that seniors, voters with disabilities, and students would see their ballots disqualified with no chance to correct it.

“The decision to not allow the curing of mail-in ballots is deeply troubling,” said Jennifer Phillips, who uses a wheelchair. “You’re essentially creating a scenario where individuals may unknowingly have their voices silenced.”

Voters who submit a mail-in ballot will get an email that the county has received their ballot, but they will not be notified that their ballot is defective and won’t be counted.

Supporters of the anti-curing decision argued the election code doesn’t allow ballot curing and that county commissioners had to follow state law and legal decisions.

“This isn’t something the commissioners just made up — this is something legislators wrote into the law and only legislators can change that,” resident David Ball said.

Chairman Sherman argued that their decision follows a federal court ruling in March that decided undated mail-in ballots couldn’t be counted. Republican leaders echoed that stance.

“There is nothing in Pennsylvania code that says these things are required to be cured — that does not exist,” said Sean Logue, chairman of the Washington County Republican Party. “The idea that the elections office has to track down everybody that might have had problems, quite frankly that’s ridiculous.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt, along with some Republican legislators, have argued for more uniformity in state elections while preserving some flexibility for counties. More uniformity can be a difficult task, however: the lion’s share of election workers are local. Schmidt has noted that the Department of State has fewer than two dozen people working on elections — but Philadelphia alone has 125 people.

State election law has caused bipartisan frustrations. Though Act 77, which expanded mail-in voting, passed in 2019 with bipartisan support, Republican legislators and voters have been critical of how it’s operated in practice.

“We in Pennsylvania are frankly a joke; we can thank Act 77 and the mass mailing ballots for that problem,” Melanie Stringhill Patterson said. “We have a very bad reputation in Pennsylvania when it comes to elections and it has to stop. It’s a matter of integrity.”

“Act 77 is a legislative mess, it has so many twists and turns in it with constant court cases,” said Ashley Duff, who ran for county commissioner in 2023.

The fight over mail-in ballots has broken along partisan lines; in Washington County, the vast majority of mail ballots were requested by Democrats. Republicans, like former gubernatorial candidate Sen. Doug Mastriano and U.S. Senate nominee Dave McCormick, have urged GOP voters to embrace mail-in voting.

But multiple speakers supportive of the anti-curing decision exhorted voters to skip mail-in balloting and only vote in person.

Proctor, of the county Democratic Committee, said a majority of voters want the decision reversed and are frustrated by the piecemeal decision-making.

“It shouldn’t be decided county-by-county,” she said. “It should be standardized across the state.”

On the need for uniformity, Democrats and Republicans were united.

When asked if the state needs to provide clearer rules, Sherman said “absolutely.”

“The legislator’s job is to make laws that we have to abide by,” he said. “This is absent of the legislator not doing their job and just throwing this up in the air, saying ‘this is the job of the county commissioner to interpret’ … We will continue to follow the law that has been given to us by the Third Circuit federal court because that’s the job as a county commissioner — not to legislate.”

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