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Three Pa. special elections are planned for Tuesday despite the coronavirus

But on Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf cast doubt on whether the election in Bucks County will take place as scheduled

  • By Gillian McGoldrick of LNP | LancasterOnline
HEATHER KHALIFA / Philadelphia Inquirer

 HEATHER KHALIFA / Philadelphia Inquirer

HEATHER KHALIFA / Philadelphia Inquirer

This story was produced as part of a joint effort between Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group, PennLive, PA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus.

HARRISBURG — Despite multiple coronavirus cases, a special election in Bucks County will go on as planned next week, state House officials have announced.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday indicated there was agreement the election should be postponed due to the three COVID-19 cases in the county, and on Saturday, he expanded a voluntary shutdown of non-essential businesses to Bucks and Chester Counties.

But in a statement Saturday, House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) said three special elections scheduled for Tuesday — in Bucks County, Westmoreland County, and a district that includes parts of Butler and Mercer Counties — would go on.

“The impact of the COVID-19 virus is being felt by all of us, and I applaud the statewide efforts to practice social distancing and increased disinfecting in public spaces. These same practices will be in place on election day, but they do not require the rescheduling of the special elections,” Turzai said. “When you consider that absentee ballots have already been applied for and returned, these elections are already underway.”

Turzai said he consulted with the House parliamentarian, who expressed concerns about “increased confusion for voters and disenfranchising absentee voters, including members of the military, who would have to re-apply for absentee status.”

The elections were called to fill vacancies in the state House left by members who won judgeships and a county commissioner seat. At least two of the races are expected to be competitive, with Democrats hoping their voter registration advantage will translate into flips of Republican-held seats in Bucks and Westmoreland.

While all voters are able to request a mail-in ballot for the April primary, that option was not available for these special elections.

County officials said Friday they are planning to report to their assigned polling locations on Tuesday prepared with wipes and gloves.

“I’d like to say we could put everybody in a bubble and protect everybody, but I’m not sure that’s possible,” said Jeffrey Greenburg, the director of elections for Mercer County.

Counties will take special precautions due to the coronavirus, the elections officials said. These policies include asking voters in districts with paper ballots to bring their own pens, as well as providing poll workers with gloves and sanitizing wipes to clean the machines and scanners after use. Officials are also encouraging voters to follow the Department of Health’s guidelines like washing their hands after leaving polling locations.

Andy Harkulich, chair of the Mercer County Democrats, said Friday he thinks COVID-19 will affect turnout.

“I’m sure the numbers will be down,” he said. “What we’re going through, you can’t complain about. This thing that’s going on is pretty serious.”

In Westmoreland County, director of elections Beth Lechman said she expects turnout to drop by about 7% compared to previous special elections, down to around 10% total turnout.

But in Bucks County, chief clerk of elections Gail Humphrey said she is expecting higher turnout for a special election “because of the seat we’re replacing” and “because of what seems to be the changing political climate” in the area.

Voters will choose who will succeed longtime moderate Republican Gene DiGirolamo, who was elected county commissioner in November 2019. It’s a key seat Democrats are eyeing as they work to flip the GOP-controlled House this fall.

As of Friday morning, Humphrey said she had only discussed with state officials how the county can address safety concerns for the April 28 primary.

“We’re just trying to get through this special election,” Greenburg in Mercer County said. “Then, there’s a lot of big conversations occurring at the state level as we approach the presidential primary.”

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