Few answers in U.S. House hearing on Pa. county’s Election Day ballot paper shortage
Democrats and Republicans on a U.S. House committee agreed on this much when it comes to an Election Day ballot paper shortage in Luzerne County last year: It was a debacle that prevented people from casting their ballots, and should never happen again.
The question of who was to blame – and how to hold them accountable – was a slightly thornier matter. But that didn’t keep majority Republicans on the U.S. House’s Committee on House Administration from taking a crack at it on Tuesday.
“Today, we’re working to bring transparency and accountability to the citizens of Luzerne County, who were failed by their local officials … and to prevent it from ever happening again,” the panel’s chairperson, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wisc., said.
The House panel heard from a parade of witnesses, including U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-9th District, a local good government advocate, and failed GOP congressional candidate Jim Bognet, each of whom pointed to different causes, and the underlying structural issues, behind the ballot paper shortage that shuttered polls across the heavily Republican county, and led to a county judge ordering the polls to stay open until 10 p.m. on Election Day to give residents more time to vote.
Bognet accused county officials, who skipped Tuesday’s hearing on the advice of legal counsel in the midst of an unfolding investigation, of trying to cover-up unspecified malfeasance, and of trying to duck responsibility for the Election Day meltdown that saw some voters leave the polls and not come back, while others filled out provisional ballots in the midterm contests.
“The Luzerne County administration has done everything in their power to avoid responsibility,” Bognet, who lost in a rematch to U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-8th District, told the committee.
Luzerne County, which operates under a home rule charter, has a Republican-controlled county council. The county’s election board has a Democratic majority.
Luzerne County District Attorney Samuel M. Sanguedolce’s office is currently conducting its own probe of the issue. But that should not preclude local officials from answering questions, Bognet argued.
“Lawyers are covering their butts … by not ever answering a question from a voter,” Bognet asserted in response to a question from U.S. Rep. Joe Morrelle, of New York, the committee’s ranking Democrat.
In an opening statement, Morelle said he agreed with the committee’s Republican majority that the situation that unfolded in Luzerne County on Election Day was a disaster. But he questioned what the committee hoped to accomplish if local leaders, along with the Pennsylvania Department of State, which has oversight of elections across the state, decided against appearing.
Donald Palmer, a commissioner on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which counts among its duties as serving as a national clearinghouse on election administration, said his agency had offered advance warning about a nationwide ballot paper shortage brought on by supply chain issues.
“It’s an extremely avoidable and unfortunate situation,” Palmer told lawmakers.
Darin Gibbons, an attorney with the Republican National Committee who worked in Pennsylvania during last year’s midterm cycle, told lawmakers that “failure[s] like those in Luzerne County not only [has] an effect in disenfranchising voters, it also undermines voters’ faith in elections.”
Bognet amplified that narrative, arguing that “the voters of Luzerne County are disgusted. They’ve lost faith in their election bureau … it’s really a sad day for American democracy.”
Away from Capitol Hill, progressive activists positioned the hearing – and those arguments – as part of a broader Republican effort to undermine public faith in elections.
Pennsylvania voters head to the polls on May 16 to cast ballots in primary elections that include high-profile races for Philadelphia mayor, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and Allegheny County executive, among other races.
“Conspiracy theorists in Pennsylvania have unsurprisingly used a paper ballot shortage in Luzerne County in the 2022 general election to spread lies about our elections,” Deborah Hinchey, of the advocacy group All Voting is Local, said in an email.
Tuesday’s hearing ”caved to the Big Lie supporters and tried to paint our secure and trustworthy elections in Pennsylvania as something they are not,” Hinchey continued.
In a news conference last November, former Pennsylvania acting Secretary of State Leigh M. Chapman acknowledged the challenges faced by Luzerne County, but said, overall, that state voters faced little to no issues on Election Day.
Alisha Hoffman-Mirolovich, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group, Action Together Northeastern Pennsylvania, told lawmakers that Luzerne County’s election office has been hobbled by ongoing staff turnover, and a loss of institutional knowledge that hampered the county’s response. She called for more funding for staff and supplies.
“We need government at every level to adequately fund our elections,” she said. “None of us ever want to see this happen again.”