Lingering Luzerne County election issues discussed



With the Nov. 3 general election nearing, Luzerne County Council and county Election Board members are discussing lingering questions and concerns from the June 2 primary.

“Even if we get one wrong, we got it wrong. We’re disenfranchising people or inconveniencing people and potentially setting ourselves up for liability,” county Councilman Stephen J. Urban told election board members during last week’s virtual council meeting.

Urban presented the case of a woman who submitted an application for a mail-in ballot on April 4, saying she called the office around May 18 because she had not yet received her ballot. According to Urban, the woman called the office again around May 26 and ended up receiving two ballots on May 30.

“She’s obviously very angry that she didn’t get to vote because by the time she would have put it in the mail box, it never would have gotten back to the county on June 2,” Urban said, noting she was not in a position to personally drop off a ballot.

Urban also questioned which ballot she should have returned. The state’s voting system indicated one ballot was mailed on May 26 and the other on May 27, he said.

While stressing she is unable to research individual cases without names, county Election Director Shelby Watchilla said there is no chance two ballots would be counted for the same voter.

If a voter reports nonreceipt of a mail-in ballot to the county, the bar code linked to the voter and ballot that was never received must be deactivated and voided in order to produce a second, new ballot with a different bar code, she said.

In a situation where a voter ends up receiving both ballots due to mail delivery delays or other issues, the voter can contact the office to establish which ballot should be returned, Watchilla said. A ballot with a deactivated bar code won’t be accepted when it is scanned by the election office upon return — a measure to prevent submission of more than one ballot for an individual voter, she said.

Approximately 40,300 county voters cast their ballots by mail on June 2 — an option that was encouraged in the pandemic and available with no excuse or reason required for the first time due to state legislation that had passed last year.

The county Election Board is asking the state to change the deadlines for mail-in ballot applications and returns to allow more time for county election bureaus to process and fill requests.

Among his lengthy list of points, Urban also pointed out a West Pittston candidate appeared on the ballot in the wrong district instead of the one where that person resided.

The election bureau said the candidate for a Republican committee seat had stated the incorrect information on candidacy paperwork.

Urban also reiterated complaints he publicly raised on Election Day about several poll workers not receiving adequate training and voters receiving the wrong party or ward ballots.

Election Board Vice Chairman Peter Ouellette respectfully listened and requested a written copy of Urban’s list, promising to publicly discuss the matter at the next board meeting in September.

Council members Walter Griffith and Harry Haas also raised various issues.

Griffith said policies and procedures must be followed, although he believes board members are “doing a fabulous job under very bad conditions.”

“Hopefully the general election will go off much easier than the primary was. I know you guys had your challenges,” Griffith said.

Due to the pandemic, the county temporarily consolidated polling locations and used paper ballots for in-person voting, reserving the new electronic ballot marking devices only for the disabled. Voters are slated to cast ballots at their usual locations on the electronic machines in November unless they choose the option to vote by mail.

Haas encouraged Election Board members to address mistakes and flaws in the last election, saying he believes many voters are “skeptical of what’s coming down the pike here” and “expecting really bad things.” Haas said he does not want the county to be accused of an imperfect election or have voters questioning results.

“It’s weighing on me heavily,” Haas said.

Ouellette said he and his board colleagues are committed and work very well with each other regardless of their party affiliations or personal views.

“We strive to conduct a good, fair and trustworthy election, and we work with the board and bureau very diligently to have that happen,” he said.

The public also has a responsibility, Ouellette said. The county desperately needs poll workers because it was already short and lost many due to aging and concerns about coronavirus exposure, he said. Ouellette also encouraged voters to remain alert when they are voting and ask questions if something doesn’t seem right while they are still at the polls before casting their ballots, rather than waiting until after the fact.

“We also have the experience of the primary. We know where a lot of the weak points are, and we can try to mitigate those,” Ouellette told council.

Watchilla, who did not participate in the virtual meeting, also noted poll worker training was interrupted by pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings and challenges securing people willing to work. For the upcoming general, training should begin the end of August or early September, with written refresher material supplied to poll workers closer to Election Day, she said.

Council Chairman Tim McGinley thanked unpaid Election Board members during the meeting for putting in a “tremendous amount of hours.”

Election Board member Keith Gould has estimated he and his colleagues each spent more than 60 hours in the days after the primary election painstakingly reviewing flagged issues and write-in votes on paper ballots.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

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