Pa. GOP wants probe of 'irregularities' in special election

Pennsylvania Election
In the closely watched special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Republican Rick Saccone by less than 1,000 votes.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Republican Party has asked the Department of State to investigate what it described as “a number of irregularities” in the 18th District special election.

Attorney Joel Frank, in a letter dated Friday, outlined five areas of concern, ranging from calls about machine errors to confusion about polling places and a dispute over whether a Republican attorney could watch part of the elections process.

“In the interest of transparency and nonpartisanship, we ask that you consider assigning this task to a Commonwealth elections official capable of conducting an impartial investigation in light of the positions you’ve taken on ongoing redistricting litigation,” Frank wrote.

The Department of State is expected to release a statement about the request later Saturday. A spokeswoman said earlier in the week that there were relatively few problems reported with the election, most of which elections workers said they quickly resolved.

Gov. Wolf, who was in Pittsburgh for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday, said he did not have any concerns about the election. The Department of State is considered part of his administration.

“I think we won,” said Wolf, a Democrat.

The election shocked many in the Republican Party and has prompted some of them to rethink their strategies in the coming primary and general elections. The district, which includes parts of Allegheny, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties, went solidly for President Trump, but Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have inched out a win over Republican Rick Saccone.

In his letter, Frank once again raised concerns that Allegheny County officials delayed attorney Russell Giancola’s attempts to watch a part of the vote tabulation.

He called the county’s requirements “unprecedented” and accused officials there of violating the Elections Code and the campaign’s rights, saying the county refused to acknowledge Giancola’s poll-watcher certificate, an email from the campaign, or an email from the chair of the county Republican Committee.

County officials have said Giancola identified himself as being “from the Saccone campaign,” but said the Election Code only allows political parties, not candidates, to deputize observers. They said a lawyer provided an email purporting to show such authorization, but they couldn’t accept it because “there was no signature.” They said they swore in Giancola to observe after they received signed authorization.

In his letter, Frank also accused officials from Allegheny and Washington Counties of failing to provide proper notice about the elections, saying Allegheny’s notice did not mention the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act, and “Washington appears to have wholly failed to add this notice to its website.” At least one section of the Allegheny County elections website does currently reference the act. It has been updated for the May 15 primary.

Larry Spahr, director of Washington County’s elections office, said Saturday morning that he had not yet seen the letter but believes the county had at some point updated its website.

“I’d have to see what they might be talking about,” he said.

Lamb, who was also at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, declined comment and said, “I’m just celebrating.”

Frank also wrote that the party received reports about calibration issues with the machines – in which the machine attempts to check off a different ballot than the one cast.

Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Department of State, said earlier in the week that the counties “received very few calls from voters about calibration issues with voting machines, and the majority of these calls were not from individual voters who personally experienced issues with selecting their candidate of choice.”

Frank also said the Republican Party “received numerous complaints about voters not appearing on the voter rolls, and being denied the ability to cast a provisional ballot at their polling place.” He said that the department’s website “errantly directed voters to polling places matched to their address under the recently imposed Pennsylvania Supreme Court map. … Since election day, we have heard from potential voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District who attempted to vote but were informed that they did not live in the district any longer.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in January tossed out the previous congressional map on the grounds that it violated the state constitution because it had been gerrymandered to favor Republicans. The court ordered that this special election should still be conducted using the previous map; Pennsylvania’s current congressmen were elected using the prior map. The new map is supposed to take effect in May – unless a court intervenes to block it.

Murren said the polling locator on the department’s website doesn’t tell people what congressional districts they live in. It only shows their polling place, which remains the same regardless of which congressional map is used, she said.

“We believe some people were confused by the simple fact that, when they used our system to ask about their polling place, the system gave them the location. Then they thought they were eligible to vote Tuesday,” Murren said. “But the fact is, on any day of the year, registered voters may check their polling place on our website.”

Elections officials said earlier in the week that they received some complaints from people who wanted to vote in the election but couldn’t because they did not live inside the district.

The high-profile race also received a lot of media attention. Campaign ads aired beyond the district bounds, and the election drew big names, with visits from Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat.