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Friday, July 3, 2020

Complaints over vote in 167th House Dist. made by Kerslake camp

The campaign manager for one of the Democratic candidates in the recent primary election is complaining the state’s new system of Vote By Mail was problematic and changes need to
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The campaign manager for one of the Democratic candidates in the recent primary election is complaining the state’s new system of Vote By Mail was problematic and changes need to improve it before the fall General Election.

Lani Frank, who worked for candidate Ginny Kerslake in her quest to win nomination to the party’s ballot for the 167th Legislative District seat now held by state Rep. Kristine Howard, also expressed concerns that Chester County’s efforts to collect ballots from voters using the new system fell short of the goal of making voting accessible to as many people as possible.

Also, the county’s tabulation of so-called “provisional” ballots left open the question as to whether all of the votes cast were counted, Frank said.

 “My concern is that uncertainty about the result of the campaign remains,” Frank said in an e-mail after detailing her complaints. “Having managed and won two prior elections for the (state House of Representatives) by less than 30 votes, I know the importance of every vote counting.”

She was referring to contests for the 156th Legislative District in 2006 and 2016, in which Democrats won recounts that lasted for weeks in exceedingly close races. 

“Elections have consequences and voter intent is paramount for the process to work,” said Frank, a longtime party activist who served as vice chairwoman of the Chester County Democratic Committee. “Lack of transparency by those in a position to determine which votes will be counted is troublesome to me, and I believe we all should be confident in the outcome of our elections, with a ‘trust-but-verify’ mindset. I hope we get it right for November.”

Results of the 167th District Democratic primary show incumbent Howard, of Malvern, who first took office in 2019, ahead of Kerslake, a small business owner from West Whiteland and a fierce opponent of the Mariner East pipeline project, by 1,950 votes — 6,286 votes, or 59 percent, to 4,336 votes, or 40 percent.

But Frank said that by her reckoning, 16,982 ballots were distributed in the  167th District and of those, 15,959 votes were cast.

“The difference is 1,023,” she said. “While we understand that Ginny is currently (losing) … and the possibility of closing the gap is slim, we also joked in 2016 that (then-candidate) Carolyn Comitta had to win 80 percent of the Military/Overseas ballots (in the race for the 156th Legislative District, and that was slim to none. But she did!

“So I ask why we don’t err on the side of allowing every vote to be counted?” Frank said in an e-mail outlining her concerns.

Her concerns have been dismissed by county officials, and by a spokesman for Howard’s campaign.

“We are confident that the process undertaken by Chester County Voter Services for this primary election — tabulating all in-person, mail-in, absentee and provisional ballots — is accurate,” the county said in a statement issued by Public Information Officer Rebecca Brain.  “Those disagreeing or wishing to challenge the validity of the election, or a particular race, have a five-day window (starting Wednesday) to make that challenge. 

“Rep. Howard applauds the Chester County Voter Services, in the grips of a global pandemic, for stepping up to meet challenges no election authority has ever had to meet before,” said Howard’s campaign spokesman, Marty Marks, in an e-mail last week. “In the 167th District Representative District, approximately 9000 Democrats voted by mail. From what we could see, the process was managed fairly and efficiently. 

“That is not to say there were not problems that need to be addressed going forward, and based on what we witnessed in the primary, we are confident Voter Services and the Chester County Commissioners are up to the task,” Marks said. 

She was supported, however, by Kerslake.

“I am disappointed that the results for House District 167 were not more in my favor,” she said in an e-mail. “However, I am equally disappointed that a reported 1,600 mail-in ballots, postmarked by Election Day but received within one week after Election Day will not be counted. This is because Gov. Wolf did not grant Chester County a waiver for an extension as he did in neighboring Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. 

“As a result, the voices of 1,600 Chester County voters won’t be heard,” she claimed. “My hope is that before the General Election in November, improvements are made. At the end of the day, every voter must have the opportunity to vote and every vote must count.”

In a lengthy recounting of the election process sent in an e-mail, Frank argued that the county should have been given the ability to accept ballots from voters who sent them to the Office of Voters Services ahead of the June 2 primary date, but which were not received by the day of the election. Six other counties, including neighboring Delaware and Montgomery, were allowed to extend their deadlines  — “cherry-picked” by Wolf, in her words — until June 9 because of a surge in mail-in ballots, the COVID-19 public health emergency and civil disturbances.

Such an extension would have allowed those 1,600 or so late voters to have their ballots cast, she said.

In addition, Frank said the county should have reacted faster to make available more “drop off” boxes for mail-in voters, It was not until the day before the election that new locations besides one at the county Government Services Center were added, even though the surge in requests for mail-in ballots was known far in advance.

Finally, Frank questioned the way the Office of Voter Services allowed outside observers such as herself to watch the counting process of provisional and absentee ballots, and said that questions about unaccounted-for ballots could put the results of the election in the 167th contest in jeopardy.

“Why are we making the process secretive? Why is there no accountability? There is plenty of human error in this process. I know we all do the best we can, but elections have consequences, and our system needs to be tightened up considerably before November, COVID or not!!”

Marks, the spokesman for Howard’s campaign, maintained that whether late votes were counted or not, the outcome of the election — Howard’s renomination — would not have changed. He suggested Frank’s criticism of the election process was similar to Republicans who have cast doubt on the system. 

“Let me be clear, there is no reason to believe that ballots received too late to be counted would not have reflected the way the ballots received on time broke for the various candidates,” Marks said. “We have seen President Trump attempt to sow seeds of doubt about the credibility of voting by mail in a thinly veiled attempt at voter suppression.  Voters should not be deceived by attempts to cast doubts about the vote-by-mail process or the results of this year’s Primary Election. 

“From what we can see, voters were very clear about their preferences and the election results accurately reflected their choices,” he said. 

Additionally, the county commissioners, through spokeswoman Brain, said they had no reason to ask Wolf to expand the “Vote By Mail” system for November.

“There are a number of improvements — technological and logistical — that could be beneficial to the processing of mail-in ballots, some of which are within Chester County’s control, and some that are not within our control,” Brain said in her statement. “We are exploring all options available to us to improve the process for mail-in ballots, including working on a robust program to allow for the secure return of mail-in ballots via drop-off locations throughout the county for the November election.”

The 167th House Dist. includes the townships of Charlestown, Easttown, East Whiteland, West Pikeland, West Whiteland and Willistown and the borough of Malvern.

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

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