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Election Day ballot problems in Pennsylvania county examined

 Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

Election Day shortages of the paper needed to run voting machinery caused significant problems in a northeastern Pennsylvania county in November, but the extent of the problem or what caused it are still unclear, witnesses told a congressional committee Tuesday.

The three-hour hearing of the U.S. House Administration Committee into events in Luzerne County on Nov. 8 brought outrage from members of both parties about the problems that contributed to a delay in reporting results from the country’s largest swing state.

The fact-finding, billed by the Republican majority as a look into “government voter suppression” in Luzerne, included anecdotal reports of problems voting in a county where a judge agreed to order polls to remain open for two extra hours, until 10 p.m., to accommodate those who may have been unable to cast ballots earlier in the day.

“This is catastrophic, in my view,” said U.S. Rep. Joseph Morelle of New York, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “This is a complete breakdown.”

Elections officials “rushed to stores” in an effort to get paper for “voter-created emergency ballots,” said committee Chairman Rep. Bryan Steil, a Wisconsin Republican, calling it “unbelievable in American elections today.”

“To date, no official action has been taken in Luzerne County,” Steil said. “No report from the district attorney. No report from the secretary of state. No report from the Luzerne County Board of Elections. There must be accountability.”

The hearing did not include the Luzerne County officials who oversee and run elections, as they apparently received legal advice not to participate while Luzerne District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce investigates what happened.

The Pennsylvania Department of State also declined to testify, telling Steil in a March 22 letter that the statewide elections agency did not want to interfere in or compromise the results of Sanguedolce’s investigation.

“Though the Department offers guidance and assistance to counties on election administration issues, the Department of State, with very few exceptions, unrelated to the issues here, has limited authority under Pennsylvania’s Election Code to dictate how counties run their elections,” wrote Jonathan Marks, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for elections and commissions.

Sanguedolce, who watched the hearing, declined to comment afterward on his investigation or when he might disclose its findings. Sanguedolce said he “wouldn’t narrow it to a criminal investigation,” noting his office has jurisdiction to look into anything involving voter irregularity.

“If everyone in that hearing operates from the assumption that the facts set forward are true, then everyone should be concerned,” Sanguedolce said. “But I’m not sure you should assume the facts are true.”

The hearing included claims that paper shortages were widespread, questions about the procedures used to cast emergency or provisional ballots, and reports some voters were unable to cast ballots at all. There was also testimony about employee turnover problems within Luzerne’s elections office.

“We don’t have the answers that we need,” said Jim Bognet, a Republican who lost by less than three percentage points in a challenge to Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright in November. “That’s why we’re so happy you guys are looking into it.”

Luzerne, formerly a reliable Democratic majority county, has become much more Republican in recent years, although Democrat Josh Shapiro won the county by barely one percentage point in the November governor’s race. In recent presidential contests, Donald Trump easily beat Hilary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 in Luzerne.

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