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Parties challenge ballots as counties keep counting votes in pivotal Pa. House races

by Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
November 14, 2022

Monday proved true what Melissa Cerrado said she told voters on thousands of doorsteps during her campaign for a Pennsylvania House seat in Montgomery County: Every vote counts.

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Cerrado, the Democratic candidate challenging Republican incumbent state Rep. Todd Stevens in the 151st Legislative District, held on to a 14-vote lead nearly a week after the election Nov. 8.

But it will be Friday before either candidate can claim victory, and even then pending litigation over undated mail-in ballots could keep the 151st District race – and other close contests – in limbo.

The 151st District is one of two close races that will decide control of the House, which Republicans have controlled for all but four of the last 28 years. Democrats last had a majority in the House between 2007 and 2010.

The close races raise the question of whether House Democrats spoke too soon when they declared last week they were confident that they would take control of the House.

In Bucks County, Republican Joe Hogan pulled ahead of Democrat Mark Moffa on Monday in the race for the 142nd District seat in the House. He held a 114-vote lead after in-person votes not counted on Election Day were added to the tally. On Friday, Moffa held a two-vote lead.

“In the normal course of ensuring the results of last week’s election are accurate and complete, board of elections staff discovered Friday that some in-person votes – including some ballots cast in a voting precinct within the 142nd PA House District – were not included in the county’s reported unofficial election results,” Bucks County spokesman James O’Malley said.

O’Malley attributed the overlooked votes to a problem with the memory stick used to transfer data from a voting machine in one precinct in the 142nd District. 

The USB drive was downloaded by the county board of elections’ computerized voting systems, but for a reason that O’Malley did not specify, the votes were not included in the count.

Two other precincts in Bucks County had the same problem, but those precincts did not include races close enough to be impacted by the votes, which were added to the tallies on Monday, O’Malley said.

Provisional ballots, cast by people who received mail-in ballots but decided to vote in person or whose eligibility to vote was in question, cannot be evaluated and counted until Friday.

In Bucks County, 275 provisional ballots were cast in the 142nd District. In Montgomery County, 239 provisional ballots were cast in the 151st District..

Voters who cast mail-in or absentee ballots but did not provide proper identification had until 5 p.m. Monday to provide identification. There were about 50 such ballots cast in the 151st District, a Montgomery County spokesperson said.

Military and overseas ballots may be received until 5 p.m. Tuesday. Those votes will be added to the counts Wednesday.

Adam Bonin, an election lawyer who represented the Democratic Party at a hearing on provisional ballots in Norristown on Monday, said 56 had been challenged. Most were cast by Democratic voters, and the challenges were made by the Republican Party, Bonin said.

Democrats made challenges to about a dozen ballots cast by Republican voters that had the same defects, Bonin said.

“This was a very civil process today, but there are serious issues involved here where Republicans were launching any plausible challenge they could to the ballot of a Democrat being counted,” Bonin said.

The fact that Republicans challenged defective ballots cast by Democrats but not Republicans shows that there is no concern for ballot security or following the law, Bonin said.

“They’re just trying to win an election,” Bonin said.

The outcome of the two House races could also be affected by the long-running political dispute over mail-in ballots.

Hundreds of mail-in ballots that were returned without handwritten dates or incorrect dates on the voter declaration section of the return envelope have been set aside and will not be counted under an order issued by the state Supreme Court last month. 

The court, which has only six members since the death of Chief Justice Max Baer in September, deadlocked 3 to 3 in a lawsuit by the Republican Party that asked the court to decide whether the date requirement violates federal law. 

Voting rights groups and U.S. Sen.-elect John Fetterman’s campaign have asked a federal judge to address the same question in a pair of western Pennsylvania lawsuits.

They contend that the date requirement violates the materiality provision of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits officials from preventing a person from voting over paperwork errors that are not material to a person’s qualifications to vote.

A federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that the date requirement was a violation of federal law, but the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the decision without ruling on the issue because the underlying Lehigh County judicial election had been decided.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news site dedicated to honest and aggressive coverage of state government, politics and policy.

The nearly 13 million people who call the commonwealth home depend on their interests being safeguarded by one of the nation’s largest, most expensive, and often inefficient and corrupt full-time state legislatures. The actions of the legislative, executive and judicial branches touch on almost every aspect of Pennsylvanians’ daily lives.

Since our launch in February 2019, the Capital-Star has emerged as a go-to source for in-depth original reporting, explainers on complex topics, features that ground policy debates, as well as progressive commentary on a range of issues.

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