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Bipartisan panel discusses election integrity, voter education in Washington Co.

Sherman, Janis back out of at last minute from ‘Keep Our Republic’ event


A bipartisan panel spoke Tuesday night about the importance of voter education and election integrity during a roundtable discussion with several current and former public officials at all governmental levels participating, with two notable exceptions.

Washington County Commissioners Nick Sherman and Electra Janis backed out at the last minute from the “Keep Our Republic” discussion that attracted scores of people to the Hilton Garden Inn ballroom at Southpointe, leaving only Commissioner Larry Maggi to answer questions on behalf of the county.

The panel’s organizers were notified by county solicitor Gary Sweat less than five hours before the discussion began that Sherman, Janis and elections Director Melanie Ostrander would not be participating over concerns about ballot curing questions with a potential lawsuit against the county looming.

“I have advised the Commissioners NOT to participate insofar as the ACLU has threatened legal action against the Board of Elections and specifically Commissioners Sherman and Janus (sic) for the decision they made not to permit the curing of mail-in ballot defects,” Sweat wrote in an email to Washington County Bar Association Executive Director Kathy Sabol, adding that the county has faced several opens records requests from groups asking to see the discarded ballots.

The Washington County Bar Association sent out invitations to the event on April 25 – nearly three weeks before the discussion – announcing the slate of speakers that included former governor Tom Corbett, retired federal judge Timothy Lewis and the three commissioners, along with KDKA-TV political editor Jon Delano as the moderator. Maggi told the crowd that Ostrander had planned to attend to speak about election laws and the voting process, but she was not permitted.

“She wanted to be here (to speak), but she was denied permission by the majority of the board,” Maggi said of the other two commissioners.

The absences centered around the county’s decision not to allow ballot curing for mail-in and absentee votes during the primary. Sherman and Janis, both Republicans, voted at the county’s April 11 board of elections meeting to not notify voters of fatal flaws with their ballots, while Maggi, who is a Democrat, wanted to allow people to fix mistakes on their ballots so their votes would count.

The ACLU’s Pennsylvania chapter and Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center sent the county a letter on April 16 hinting at potential litigation over the issue while raising concerns about the decision not to allow ballot curing, which many neighboring counties allow. Out of the 286 ballots that were received by the county’s elections office but not counted, 251 contained errors that could have been “cured” by voters had the elections board permitted that process in the days leading up to the April 23 primary.

In a written statement sent Tuesday night, both Sherman and Janis said they made the decision based on the advice of the county solicitor.

“I do not go against the recommendation of counsel, as it is against the interests of those who elected and put their faith in me,” Janis said. “The courts will decide this. The people of Washington County are my only concern, and I will not jeopardize their faith in me, or my conviction in our decisions as a board.”

“The pre-questions they sent us were largely about curing ballots,” Sherman said. “Because the county has been threatened to be sued by the (ACLU) our attorney advised against us participating. We’ve answered the question many times. The county will continue to follow the state law and the ruling of the Third Circuit federal court. I don’t feel there is much more to say on the issue.”

The first questions about ballot curing did not come up until halfway through the 90-minute session, and even then lasted less than 30 minutes within an overall discussion about mail-in ballots and mistakes voters make when filling them out.

Corbett brought some of the components that come with a mail-in ballot – such as the return envelope – that he received recently from his home county of Allegheny in order to use as an example of what needs to be done so the vote will be counted. Since there have been errors with missing signatures and problems with dates on mail-in ballot envelopes, he suggested the Department of State should produce a lengthy commercial leading up to the next election to explain the process in detail.

“We’re trying to demystify the confusion,” Corbett said. “But in Allegheny County, it’s really not that hard.”

Rob Beecher, who is the deputy policy director for the state Department of State, also attended to give insight on how the office administers elections with 67 counties across Pennsylvania each doing it a little bit differently. He noted that the department recently came up with a uniform envelope designed to help prevent mistakes, leading to a 13% drop in the number of ballots that were invalidated due to fatal flaws in this primary compared to previous elections.

Delano then brought up questions from the audience about ballot curing and why each county can decide on its own whether to allow it or not.

“In Pennsylvania, some counties allow you to cure it,” Delano said. “Other counties choose not to let anyone know about it. By the time you find out, it’s too late and (the vote) hasn’t been counted.”

Beecher said the “notice and cure” is up to each county board of elections, with the “matter of county discretion whether and how … to conduct the procedure.”

Corbett, who thinks a federal lawsuit will ultimately force the state into a uniform policy one way or the other, suggested there should be a single button a county elections office can push to notify voters of an error to alleviate workload for staff.

Maggi informed Corbett and the audience that such a procedure already exists. When a ballot is returned to the county elections offices, the staff scans the barcode and lists it as “received” for the election. If there is a fatal flaw, the county has the option of notating it as “canceled” so the voter will be alerted in an email that there is a problem. Since that is considered ballot curing, Washington County’s elections board decided against even allowing that procedure to happen.

“I favor curing,” Maggi said.

Lewis, who was nominated to the federal appeals court in Pittsburgh by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, said judges who review election lawsuits do so with an understanding that their decisions will impact many people. With lawsuits likely on the way at both the state and federal levels, Lewis wanted the audience to know that the judges will do their best to be fair and interpret the law correctly.

“They proceed cautiously and carefully,” Lewis said. “They realize there is more on the line than just the dispute between the parties.”

The panel discussion organized by “Keep Our Republic” is one of several happening across Pennsylvania this year leading up to the general election in November. The main takeaway by the panelists was that educating the public on how elections function and making sure voters are informed on key issues is paramount for people to trust the process.

“Why are we here?” Corbett rhetorically asked the audience about the reasons for the panel discussion.

“We care!” someone from the audience shouted back.

Corbett said the discussions, which he’s participated in four so far across the state, are designed to get to the “nuts and bolts” of elections and educate the public in order to give people a better understanding of how it all works.

“We want to get back to normal,” the one-term Republican governor said. “We need an open dialogue.”