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County Resumes Tallying Votes Friday, Per State Law

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
Boxes of ballots at the Allegheny County election warehouse.

Allegheny County won't start tabulating its last 35,000 ballots until tomorrow, including up to 29,000 from voters who originally got the wrong ballot. And although beginning that work Friday has been the plan for nearly a month now – a plan backed up by a federal court order – the brief hiatus in counting somehow managed to throw an already contentious election into even deeper chaos.

Any counting delay was bound to raise eyebrows: The vote in Pennsylvania is being closely watched, and may end up close when the count is finished. But Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at a Thursday press conference, that work is being done by a county Return Board which, by state law, is not permitted to meet prior to the Friday after an election.  The review, he said,  “is a normal process that happens during every election, every year.” 

The Return Board includes dozens of people who review the Election Night ballot-counting done by election workers – some of whom serve on the board itself – and handles any ballots for which there are problems. With the profusion of mail-in voting this year, that will include ballots that were torn in the mail and couldn’t be scanned, or whose outer envelopes were undated, among other problems. The county has 6,800 such ballots awaiting review.  

And this year, the Review Board process will also include ballots tied to a snafu by a mail vendor, Midwest Direct, which sent 29,000 voters ballots with the wrong races on them. 

The county discovered the mistake in mid-October, and the correct ballots were sent out to replace the old ones. But those votes require extra scrutiny to prevent voters from casting both the old and the new ballot, and to ensure that the county tallies the reissued ballot, not the misprinted ballot to vote in a race they aren’t eligible to participate in. 

“These ballots can’t be scanned along with the others,” said Sam DeMarco, who is a member of the county Elections Board and chair of the county’s Republican Party. 

The county’s approach was ratified in a subsequent court order after two Republican Congressional candidates filed suit over how the erroneous ballots would be handled. The order affirmed the county’s plans, ordering that the process of verifying and counting the ballots could not begin until 5 p.m. Nov. 6. That deadline was set by a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, which required election officials to accept any ballots that arrived by that time — as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.  

The settlement was the end of the controversy until Thursday morning, when a New York Times reporter tweeted that “elections staff is taking today off for ‘administrative work’ and will not resume count until Friday.” The reporter also quoted Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who like DeMarco serves on the Elections Board, saying, “I can’t get an answer as to why.”  

The tweet circulated quickly in the hyperpartisan environment of social media, where partisans seized on it as a sign of potential tampering with the outcome. But Fitzgerald made the answer clear in a press conference arranged shortly afterward.

Fitzgerald did not address the controversy directly, but he emphasized that the board’s work “will be viewed by the public, by the poll watchers, by all parties who will be there to look at those ballots as the Return Board begins to process those ballots. … We want to make sure that every vote is counted.” 

County workers “have been ordered by federal courts to not be handled or processed until five o'clock on Friday,” he added. “So at 5 o'clock tomorrow, they will begin going through that process.”