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Allegheny County executive race turns to debate on election integrity

A woman stands behind a podium with microphones on it.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Executive candidate Sara Innamorato speaking on election integrity outside the County Office Building on Oct. 23, 2023.

With slightly more than two weeks to go before voters choose their next Allegheny County executive, the race has turned to who can be trusted to oversee elections themselves.

While Republican Joe Rockey pledged that he would leave the county elections department untouched, and urged his rival to do the same, Democrat Sara Innamorato’s campaign warned Monday that the GOP can't be trusted to run elections given its track record — including actions taken during the 2020 election by the head of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.

“Our great experiment in democracy is fragile, and your vote is sacred," Innamorato said at a news conference Monday morning outside the County Office Building, where elections staffers work. “Our democracy is simply too important to play politics with as your next county executive.”

The conduct of elections is governed by state law, with enforcement by the courts. But the county executive has a high profile, both as the head of the county's administrative branch and as one of three members of the county Board of Elections, which oversees elections and ultimately certifies their results. (The other two board members are “at large” county council members who represent each of the major parties.)

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Rockey's campaign brought that responsibility to the fore last week, with a statement Friday afternoon saying he “offered praise for the operation of the Allegheny County Department of Election and called on his opponent to commit to making no changes in its management."

“Allegheny County is facing many problems,” the statement quoted Rockey as saying, but under elections director Dave Voye, “one thing we won’t need to change is the leadership and staff of our Department of Elections.” The office, he said, “has always been reliable, honest and free of political interference.”

Such compliments did not impress Michelle Panella, a member of SEIU Local 668, which represents employees in the elections division and other county operations. At Innamorato's news conference Monday, Panella noted that union members have contract protections that would protect them from an overhaul of the department.

Voye, as a supervisor, would not have such protection. Panella would not comment on his job performance, but said, “No elected official or candidate should make promises to a county director who is tasked with counting the votes."

For her part, Innamorato declined to make such a commitment to Voye, saying the next executive should take the job with "an open mind and talking about how our department can be the best that it can be. And that means working with the people who are currently there, but it doesn't mean making promises."

She also said that the status quo could be improved by improving ballot access in future elections.

“Joe Rockey has pledged to keep politics out of the Elections Department," said a Rockey campaign statement in response. "Sara Innamorato just made it clear that she won’t. This is Sara Innamorato being an extremist who will play politics with the Elections Department.”

Voye has held the position since the death of longtime elections director Mark Wolosik in 2019. County officials had no comment on Voye's tenure Monday.

It's not unusual for elected leaders to choose new leadership teams, though Wolosik held the post through multiple administrations for 17 years. And a change in elections administration next year would take place amid the logistical challenges of what is sure to be a hotly contested Presidential election. But the debate about who will hold the post takes place amid a national debate over election integrity, which has raged since Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the election culminiated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Heated controversies have lingered in the Republican bastion of Fulton County, among other places.

State Sen. Jay Costa, who leads Senate Democrats and attended Innamorato's press conference, noted that in 2020, officials in GOP-controlled Westmoreland County had sought to disallow mail-in ballots — which are used largely by Democratic voters — that voters failed to date, even though they were received in time by election officials.

“That’s not what’s going to happen here,” Costa said. “We need to make sure that we have people in these positions who … protect the right of every person who wants to cast your ballot.”

While courts have policed some controversies, Democratic Congressman Chris Deluzio offered a similar warning at a separate lunchtime news conference to discuss a GOP leadership crisis in Congress.

"I do not want to roll the dice on handing over control of our Board of Elections and our democracy to a party and politicians who are still unwilling to denounce this extremism."

Democrats focused particularly on Sam DeMarco, who chairs the Republican Committee of Allegheny County. By virtue of holding one of two at-large seats on county council, DeMarco is also a member of the county Board of Elections.

In that capacity, DeMarco has generally spoken positively of election workers and eschewed election denialism. But he voted not to certify the results of the 2020 election. At the time, he said he was doing so not to question the outcome but as a “protest vote” against what he called a “broken and flawed process” involving ballot challenge procedures and poll watcher access.

DeMarco also joined a slate of Republican electors who pledged to vote for Donald Trump in the Electoral College in 2020 — even though Democrat Joe Biden won the popular vote — should Trump's efforts to challenge the results in courts succeed.

Republicans assembled slates of so-called “false electors” in other key swing states that Biden won, including Georgia and Arizona. But in Pennsylvania, the GOP characterized the slate as a backstop in case a court threw out the results of the state’s vote: “This was in no way an effort to usurp or contest the will of the Pennsylvania voters,” one member of the slate said in a GOP statement at the time.

Such disclaimers may have prevented Pennsylvania Republicans from being charged with fraud, as the state’s then-attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, grudgingly acknowledged.

They also seem to have frustrated ardent Trump supporters: Trump loyalists reportedly worried that the use of such language could “snowball" and weaken their efforts elsewhere. DeMarco himself later incurred the wrath of a group of hardline Republican activists who sought to remove him from party leadership last year, in part because he didn’t do more to contest the 2020 results.

But on Monday, Innamorato said the caveats merely allowed DeMarco and others “put in some protections for themselves," while seeking to undermine voter confidence.

“They were smart about it,” she said, “but they were still playing politics with their scam.”

DeMarco called the accusations "last-minute silliness by a candidate desperate to find something — anything — to distract from her downward spiral as voters wake up to Sara Innamorato’s extremist politics."

Rockey's electoral hopes are pinned on a critical mass of Democratic voters turning away from Innamorato, a progressive who Rockey has been attacking as an extremist. The race is widely held to be in the single digits, and election integrity has been a unifying issue for Democrats.

At his campaign kickoff this past winter, WESA asked Rockey about whether he had concerns about or wanted to change the conduct of elections. He said it is a county executive’s responsibility “to make sure that elections were held fairly and that the voters had confidence."

And while Rockey said, "I have confidence that Allegheny County has had safe and fair elections over the course of its past," he also said he couldn't comment on a specific prior election.

"I wasn’t in charge then," he said.

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.