Fight Over Williams’ Residency Sends Lawyers Searching For Precedent
For the Pennsylvania Senate, the election didn't necessarily end at 8 p.m. on Nov. 6.
The chamber's Republican majority is questioning the residency qualifications of a newly elected Democrat who flipped a Republican-held Pittsburgh-area seat by a mere 793 votes, injecting tension into a normally quiet December between legislative sessions.
A vote against seating Democrat Lindsey Williams could turn swearing-in day on Jan. 1 — normally a celebratory event attended by family members of senators — into a bare-knuckled partisan fight that sows ill will.
"Do they have the will to do this?" said Larry Otter, a Pennsylvania lawyer who specializes in election law. "They probably have the votes, but you've got to have the will to do it, too, because if they try and do it, then they'll have to schedule a special election, and she could win again."
Counting Williams, Republicans hold a 29-21 majority in the chamber after a tough election cycle in which they lost five seats and their super majority.
Should Republicans reject Williams, the Pittsburgh area could see hotly contested special elections in two closely divided Senate districts, including one to replace Congress-bound Republican Guy Reschenthaler.
The fight over Williams is sending Senate lawyers to search for precedent — it has been decades since the Senate refused to seat a member — and involves the constitution's requirement that senators be "citizens and inhabitants" of Pennsylvania for the preceding four years.
The chamber's top Republican, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, has given Williams until Monday to submit information that makes her case.
The question revolves around Williams' whereabouts four years before this past election.
Williams, 35, has maintained that she accepted a job offer with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers in the days before Nov. 6, 2014, and had begun moving things from Maryland and finding an apartment by then. Williams, a Pennsylvania native, has lived most of her life in the state.
Republicans point to her Maryland address on a Pennsylvania speeding ticket in November 2014, her December 2014 voter registration in Pennsylvania and her social media postings suggesting she worked at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Washington, D.C., through November.
Republican senators say they aren't pre-judging the matter. But they also say they are serious about blocking Williams from the Senate if it is the right thing to do under the state constitution.
"It's the overwhelming consensus that we want to see information contrary to what we've seen already that shows that she is not eligible," said Sen. Rich Alloway, R-Franklin.
Republicans also suggest that Williams misled Democrats and should have known that she didn't meet the residency requirement.
But David Marshall, the executive director of the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said the organization became aware during the primary campaign that Republicans might challenge Williams' residency qualifications.
The organization reviewed the matter and came away satisfied that Williams met muster, Marshall said.
Williams defeated Stephanie Walsh in the Democratic primary, while Jeremy Shaffer thumped the two-term incumbent, Randy Vulakovich, in the GOP's primary.
Republicans did challenge her residency in court in October, but a judge threw it out on a technicality without settling whether Williams met the requirement. Williams went on to defeat Shaffer.
"This is politics on their part, because there was an election, people heard these allegations and they voted for Lindsey," Marshall said.
Should Republicans refuse to seat Williams, Democrats could file an emergency petition to the state Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a 5-2 majority.
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said the odds are "better than 50-50" that the court would review the case.
Still, justices could decide that the Senate has the last word on the constitution's residency qualifications, Ledewitz said.
If the seat goes to a special election, Republicans predict that the Democrats' campaign message will accuse them of stealing the election from voters.
They don't have to wait.
On Friday, Emily's List, which poured tens of millions of dollars into 2018's elections to help elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, rolled out that very attack line.
In a statement, the organization said, "This is yet another desperate and baseless attempt by Republicans to accomplish what they couldn't at the ballot box or in court."