State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

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Tina Davis, down just 72 votes, files suit over Bucks County Senate race

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Nov 19, 2018 5:56 PM
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Bucks County election workers count provisional ballots cast in the race between Tommy Tomlinson and Tina Davis. Lawyers for both candidates look on. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

 

(Doylestown) - Though Pennsylvania's state legislative elections are over and done, one Senate race is still under contention.

Democratic state Representative Tina Davis sought to unseat incumbent Republican Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson in the 6th Senate District.

Now, she is going to court over what her campaign says are restrictive election laws. 

A week after the midterms, elections workers at the Bucks County Courthouse were still busy in their paper-cluttered office. At a wooden table toward the back of the room, a few of them worked to slice open the green envelopes that held dozens of potentially-invalid ballots.

Above them loomed a handful of lawyers and Bucks County Republican and Democratic party officials. As the county workers counted votes, the lawyers scribbled down their own tallies.

They were all concentrating on one race: the sixth state Senate district.

"I would say that this seat is unusual, because we don't normally--I mean in the past, maybe the candidates that they fielded were different. But it was never, to my recollection, this close for that seat," said Bucks County GOP Chair Pat Poprik.

Poprik has headed the Bucks GOP since 2012, and has been involved in politics in the region for some 40 years.

The southeastern part of the state has become much more competitive for Democrats recently. And while Poprik thinks the Bucks delegation is largely holding them off, she did acknowledge that things are changing.

"The people who voted Republican in the past may have still voted for some Republicans, like Brian Fitzpatrick who won the congressional seat, but in some of the areas locally they may have not," she said. "It's just a difference that we're dealing with. We're handling it and we're working it out."

Tommy Tomlinson, the Republican in the 6th District race who has served in state government since 1995, is a moderate.

The owner of a Bensalem funeral home, he's won union endorsements and has supported efforts to tighten gun laws and tax oil and natural gas drillers.

His opponent, Tina Davis, is a former realtor and Democrat who's served in the state House since 2011. She ran dual campaigns for Senate and her House seat--winning the latter easily.

Davis also co-founded a state chapter of the group Emerge, which aims to get more women into public office.

Both candidates knew the race would be tight heading into Election Day.

As returns began coming in, they were neck-and-neck. Davis led for most of the evening, but as the final counties reported their totals, Tomlinson pulled ahead.

By 100 votes.

In a race that garnered more than 108,000 overall.

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Piles of provisional ballots in the Bucks County elections office. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Larry King, the communications director for the Bucks Board of Elections, is new to the job. He says he doesn't have a ton of context for what's normal.

But he did note that there's no question, this race stands out.

"Obviously it's extremely, extremely close for a race with this many votes," he said. "Our percentage is approaching 65 percent turnout and it generally doesn't get out of the fifty range."

With all the ballots counted, the final margin in the race narrowed to 72. Tomlinson is ahead.

But it isn't quite over.

"Tina has no interest in conceding until she feels confident that every vote is counted, and that we've done everything we can to ensure that every vote is counted," said Aren Platt, a spokesman for Davis's campaign.

The campaign is suing in Bucks County Common Pleas Court over 216 absentee ballots that weren't tallied because they arrived at the elections office past their deadline. Those ballots are under seal, but Platt said the campaign is fairly certain the number is accurate based on conversations with the county commissioners office.

They're asking Bucks County officials not to officially certify the race until those ballots are counted.

The suit is on the same grounds as one the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently filed.

They say the turnaround time between when a Pennsylvania voter can receive an absentee ballot, and the deadline for it to be received by the county, is too tight--the tightest in the country, in fact.

"When you're talking about people filling out absentee ballots, they can be literally anywhere in the country," Platt said. "Hawaii, Alaska, in rural parts of the country."

He added, "To ask for a piece of mail to leave the Bucks County board of elections on Wednesday, arrive at the voter's location by Thursday, and then back to the Board of Elections by Thursday--it just misunderstands how fast the mail works."

The Davis camp has asked for an expedited decision, and Platt said they might have a result within a week or so.

He noted, nobody on the campaign expected it to last this long. But, he said, "everybody on our team is completely committed to making sure that we follow through on this."

For his part, Tomlinson has already declared victory twice--once the day after the election, and again when Davis announced her decision to sue.

In a Facebook post, he wrote that after a "long, drawn-out process" he was proud to serve as Senator again. And he added, the county elections board worked tirelessly to make sure the results were right.

Pat Poprik, the Bucks GOP Chair, said she thinks Democrats should be a little less zealous about the county.

"I think they're very, very optimistic, and I think it's misplaced because I don't think they're going to take the seats they think they're going to take," she said.

Tomlinson isn't the only Republican in the southeast who faced a tough race.

All told, Senate Democrats picked up four seats there--ousting two longtime incumbents. They ended up with five new seats total.

House Democrats snagged 14 in the region and had a net gain of 11.

The results of the Tomlinson/Davis race haven't been officially certified by the county or state, though the county made a preliminary announcement that Tomlinson appears to have won.

This story has been changed to reflect an updated number of late-filed absentee ballots. The initial number reported was 192, but Davis's campaign says it verified a higher number shortly before filing its lawsuit. 

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