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Allegheny County Dems Wrestle Over Secret Ballot Prior To Leadership Vote

Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chair Nancy Patton Mills.

Members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee will choose their party leaders on June 9. And whether they vote for current county chair Nancy Patton Mills or challenger Eileen Kelly, this may be the last time they choose by secret ballot.

For a while, in fact, it appeared committee members wouldn’t be allowed to vote in secret this time, either.

Party members choose their local and state leaders every four years. In Allegheny County, they have long done so by secret ballot. In the run-up to this year’s selection, though, the county organization told committee members that “Per the bylaws of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, secret ballots are not permitted.”

A letter from the state Democratic committee – where Mills serves as interim vice-chair and hopes to become chair next month – similarly asserted that secret ballots aren’t permitted “for any vote at any level in the Democratic Party.”

That came as news to Kelly, who chairs a committee representing Democrats in the city of Pittsburgh, and it prompted a lawsuit filed by attorney Jim Burn, himself a former state and county chair. In an eight-page complaint, Burn argues that county Democrats have voted in secret for years – a practice most recently affirmed in 2009 – and “at no time in recent memory or history has there been an objection, a motion, or a challenge to the secret ballot provisions.”

“The new rules [a]ppear to have been issued only after Plaintiff Kelly announced her intent to run for County Chair,” the complaint adds. The timing of the move, it argues, could lead to “voter suppression [and] confusion,” and “calls into question the motivation of Defendant Mills.”  

“This has already been resolved,” said Patton Mills. Committee members, she says, will be allowed to vote in secret after all.

Patton Mills says the effort to change the rules came at the behest of national Democratic leaders, who she says were surprised to learn that voting was being done in secret.

After all, she says, while serving on the committee is a low-profile job, members are still elected officials, chosen to represent voters.

“When [Pittsburgh Congressman] Mike Doyle votes on a bill, he doesn’t do it secretly,” she said.

But Patton Mills says she challenged party leaders about the basis for changing the rules for committee members. And when they were unable to quickly cite specific party rules prohibiting a secret ballot, she decided to reverse course for this election. She says the party is mailing a follow-up letter notifying committee people the secret ballot will be used at least one last time.

But “I think it will be” the last time they do so, she adds. “I think we’ll have to join the rest of the world and say, ‘We’re elected officials, and once they elect us, people have a right to know who we pick for leadership.’”

Burn says Patton Mills needed to announce the reversal “quickly and in unequivocal terms.”

“There is a proper procedure for changing rules, and it’s not 10 days before an election,” he adds.

Patton Mills says she doesn’t know of another county that choose its leaders by secret ballot. And at the state committee level, which governs all Pennsylvania Democrats, committee members have long shared their ballots.

The practice of voting secretly in Allegheny County, however, appears to be decades old. And while it arguably lacks transparency, “You have to remember why we went to the secret ballot in the first place,” says Chuck Pascal, a longtime Democratic lawyer.

In the days when political patronage was rampant, committee people often held jobs with city or county government – and they might well fear for their jobs if they openly backed a candidate their boss opposed.

There is still no shortage of public employees on the committee rolls, but civil-service laws now afford them some protection. As such conditions change, says Pascal, “The question is, which is the progressive reform?”

“I can see both sides of this,” says Burn. “But that just reinforces the crux of the complaint, which is that there should be an open discussion before changing the rules.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.