Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

The fight over Pennsylvania's 2022 election results continues

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

There may have been a time when elections actually concluded political disputes, at least for a little while. A time when voters would speak and politicians would listen (or pretend to). You might even have thought 2022 would be such a year in Pennsylvania, given that Democrats handily won races for governor and U.S. Senate, and staved off talk of a GOP “red wave.”

Well, maybe not so much.

Some conservative activists are still trying to cast doubt on the results in 2022, while Harrisburg politicians are arguing about what those outcomes mean for 2023. The result may not be chaos, exactly. But as local Democrat Dan Frankel predicted in this space a couple weeks ago, things may get messy for a while.

As we reported this morning, Democrats and Republicans in the state House are at odds about who actually controls the chamber, and thus who has the right to set a date for the special election to fill the House seat left vacant by the recent death of Rep. Anthony DeLuca. Republican Bryan Cutler, who served as House speaker for the past session, and Democrat Joanna McClinton, who leads House Democrats, both say they alone have the power.

The issue is complicated by a number of factors, among them the fact that we’ve entered a purgatorial period after the past legislative session ended on Nov. 30, but before members of the new session are sworn in on Jan. 3. And while Democrats won a bare majority of 102 seats in the 203-seat state House last month, one of those seats was DeLuca’s. That leaves both parties with 101 active members … and there will be two more vacancies in January, when Allegheny County Democrats Austin Davis and Summer Lee ascend to the office of lieutenant governor and congressional representative, respectively.

Things are so much in flux that anything said here likely will have changed by the time this newsletter hits inboxes. Suffice it to say that both sides are accusing each other of a power grab — Cutler accused Democrats of an “attempt to hijack control of the chamber” in a message to his caucus — while citing precedents for their own actions. (The GOP says Cutler is following an example laid down in 2010; Democrats cite a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling to justify their position.) And everyone could be wrong!

WESA Politics Newsletter

Stay on top of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania political news from WESA's reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, as Harrisburg bickers about special elections in the future, officials in Allegheny County and elsewhere are contending with efforts to question the election we just had. Conservative activists have filed petitions seeking recounts in polling places scattered across the state, though locally the effort is small: Only a dozen voting districts — less than 1 percent of Allegheny County’s 1,323 precincts — are subject to challenge.

The issue boiled up at a meeting of the county Board of Elections this week. One of the objectors, MJ Costello, wants a recount of the ballots cast in the Mt. Lebanon polling place where she herself is a judge of elections. Except, she told the board, “I’m not a judge of election because I don’t count the ballots” — just the number of people who cast them. Those voters place the ballots into a scanner, and the results are uploaded to a memory stick, about which Costello and others harbor dark suspicions. “I’m signing off on just passing papers along to what I call the black hole,” she said.

It is, shall we say, not clear that confidence in elections would be universally enhanced if ardent conservatives like Costello were more involved in vote-counting. And the black hole some other Republicans dread is a bottomless pit of election denialism.

The GOP suffered disappointments this fall in part because “people need solutions to the problems they face today rather than false and frivolous claims about the past,” said Sam DeMarco, who heads the county’s Republican Party and sits on its Board of Elections (and who has tangled with Costello before). DeMarco said that for some diehards, “Their entire identity is tied up in this. [But] this is a fight our party is going to have to have.”

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week, these challenges appear to have been coordinated across the state, and they have delayed certification of some counties’ results. Activists have circulated fill-in-the-blank legal petitions, along with emailed guidance that “it is not necessary … to have identified or to allude to what the fraud or error may be within the petition. If no fraud or error is found, there is no adverse repercussions that these electors may face.”

But for all of that, these efforts are a lot like a series of 2016 challenges in a smattering of precincts, filed by voters reeling from the election of Donald Trump. Then, as now, the challenges were filed not because of anything that happened at the polling places themselves, but because people unhappy with the outcome happened to live there. The recount confirmed the original tally, and most of us moved on. The same will likely happen here, or the recounts could be torpedoed by procedural defects.

Harrisburg legislators may well want to review the state election code to ensure recount procedures don’t cause more trouble in future elections. But at least in the state House, they have their own mess to clean up first.

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.