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Butler County drawn in to ballot dispute

Butler County Courthouse Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle
3 counties sued by state over undated ballots

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HARRISBURG — A judge deciding if three Pennsylvania counties have to certify May primary vote counts including ballots lacking dates on their return envelopes learned this week that Butler County has not counted undated ballots.

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is suing Berks, Fayette and Lancaster counties in an effort to force them to report ballots in envelopes without handwritten dates. Days after a lengthy hearing in the Commonwealth Court case, lawyers for the Department of State and Fayette County separately told Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer that Butler County also has not officially reported such votes.

Butler County set aside and did not count 83 mail-in ballots that were not dated because the law requires the ballots to be signed.

“We did not count them” said Leslie Osche, chairwoman of the county commissioners.

The Department of State sent the county an email June 21 asking the county to count those ballots, she said. Solicitor Wil White responded in an email saying, “We did not count them because we’re following the law,” Osche said.

However, the department has certified the results of the county’s primary, Osche said.

On July 20, the state announced the certification of 64 counties, including Butler, out of 67 counties.

The undated ballots in Butler County were segregated from other ballots, but have not been counted, she said.

Osche declined to comment on a statement in a Tuesday letter to Cohn Jubelirer from Michael Fischer, a lawyer representing the Department of State, that the agency “may take further action shortly with respect to Butler County if necessary.”

The legal dispute involving Berks, Fayette and Lancaster counties has held up certification of primary results for governor and U.S. Senate, and created problems for a Republican state House member who has just filed a lawsuit seeking to withdraw from his reelection contest.

Rep. Matthew Dowling's district is in Fayette County, where the primary results have not been certified. Until he is deemed the winner of the nomination, the state isn't letting him withdraw, and there's a looming deadline for local party officials to pick a substitute.

Department of State press secretary Grace Griffaton wrote in an email Thursday that state officials from her department were evaluating their options.

“It is disturbing that certain counties are refusing to certify valid ballots cast by their voters despite guidance on this issue from the department, and rulings from both state and federal courts," Griffaton said.

State law requires handwritten dates on mail-in ballot return envelopes. But after a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in May that said the dates weren't needed in a contested Lehigh County judge race, the Wolf administration told counties they must include the disputed ballots in their tallies reported to the Department of State. After the Berks, Fayette and Lancaster counties did not, the state filed suit.

In addition to the official certification of primary winners in the races for governor and U.S. Senate, the issue has also held up certification of primary winners in congressional and state legislative contests in districts that include parts of the three counties.

There are also questions about the status of Bradford County, where officials sent in certification before being pressured by the state, after which the county's election board submitted a separate document that describes the uncertified ballots from undated envelopes.

“We agreed early on, the three commissioners, not to certify nor to count illegal ballots, which we deem those to be,” Republican Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko said Wednesday. “They weren't counted. But they were sent in separately because of the threat of a lawsuit.”

In the Fayette County contest, three-term incumbent Dowling announced he was dropping out last month after being charged with driving under the influence.

“It has been an extremely frustrating position to be in right now, having made the difficult decision to move on in my private life and not go through this election cycle already,” Dowling said Thursday.

On Monday, Dowling and four voters from the Republican majority district sued acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman, one of Chapman's lieutenants and the Fayette County Board of Elections, seeking a Commonwealth Court order that he be allowed to withdraw. The lawsuit says the deadline to replace him on the ballot is later this month.

Eagle staff writer Steve Ferris contributed to this report.