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Pa. state senator, representative call for meetings about Berks County’s election problems

They say confidence in the democratic process has been impacted.

  • Anthony Orozco
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg May 25, 2022

 Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg May 25, 2022

This story has been updated with information provided by Berks County about how it is implementing changes in training and procedures for elections. 

Two state lawmakers are calling on the Berks County Commissioners and election leaders to take part in public meetings after several elections were marred by errors, mistakes and mishaps in recent years.

Sen. Judy Schwank and State Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr., both Democrats who represent districts in the county, are responding to the release of an investigation into problems during the May primary.

State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, speaks during a news conference on March 26, 2019, in support of raising the minimum salary for teachers to $45,000 a year.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, speaks during a news conference on March 26, 2019, in support of raising the minimum salary for teachers to $45,000 a year.

County officials say they are taking concrete steps to strengthen the elections. The commissioners stated last week they are committed to ensuring the quality of elections.

The probe was conducted by MacMain, Connell & Lienhauser, a law firm that specializes in representing public and private entities. It revealed a chain of issues that originated from Berks County Election Services failing to upload voter signatures onto electronic poll books.

In a letter sent to the board of commissioners Monday, Schwank requested a meeting with county leaders and members of the public to create a plan of action to remedy the problems identified by the investigation.

“May I suggest that an ad hoc panel be expeditiously convened which draws on leadership, experience and expertise from diverse cross sections of our community…to help us develop and implement a solid plan of action,” Schwank wrote. “This task is essential and the need is urgent.”

Among the recommendations were that election employees attend more training on the electronic poll book system, and staff have a functional knowledge of the state’s election code. It also called for a better form of communication between officials and elections staff.

County officials said they are already planning more trainings for staff, setting up stronger lines of communication between election workers and it will work closely with the suppliers of the electronic poll books to ensure more oversight.

Schwank suggested pulling in election experts from other jurisdictions, county employees, poll workers, civic leaders and others to be a part of the panel.

Her letter did not place blame for the problems in the primary and also applauded the county for already looking into what went wrong. But the state senator and former Berks County commissioner also warned about the potential harm election failures will do to public perception of the democratic process.

She noted the prevalence of unfounded claims of election fraud, championed by former President Donald Trump, and how it has led some people to question the integrity of elections.

“And, in this toxic atmosphere, when the system does breakdown, as it did here in Berks County, this past May, our residents may come to believe there is truth to the notion that our democracy is failing,” Schwank wrote. “[W]hich could dissuade them from voting and having their voices heard.”

Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, who is the chair of the Election Board, spoke with Schwank this week to share what steps are being taken to protect future elections.

Guzman released a statement last week that he is pushing for accountability. He called for public hearings to establish a more detailed timeline of how mistakes happened.

His statement alluded to the county sending incorrect Spanish-language voting information to voters, the county’s lawsuit with the department of state over not adding dated mail-in ballots to final vote tallies and the recent departure of the county elections director.

“From the failures hitting people of color the hardest before the election, to the refusal to obey state law and count legal ballots, to the curious resignation of the person who was in charge for those debacles, it’s clear we have to refocus on what matters: Restoring the people’s faith in their democracy,” Guzman said.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

State Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr., a Reading Democrat, asks the crowd at Saturday’s Berks4Peace march and rally if they have ever contacted an elected official before.

He said the hearing would take place before the November election, most likely during a House Democratic policy meeting. Guzman added he does not have subpoena power and participation would not be compulsory.

When looking at Schwank’s proposal for a meeting, Guzman said he hopes they can somehow affect change.

“You know, I think the senator and I just have to sit down and talk and figure out what’s the best course of action,” Guzman said Tuesday. “But one thing I do know that we both agree on is that what has happened and what continues to happen out of the election services department is unacceptable, and needs to change as soon as possible.”

Anthony Orozco is a part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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