Worrisome Inaction by Warren County Commissioners to Prevent Voter Suppression

Photo by Element5 Digital

“The health and success of our democracy depend in large measure on broad public trust in the execution of our representative form of government. Indeed, it is far easier to lose faith in the results of elections than it is to earn it.

The Blue Ribbon Committee on Pennsylvania’s Election Security

Despite the laudable efforts of County employees and poll workers to use new, complicated voting machines, and despite the heroic patience of voters to cope with delays, the November 5th election in Warren County diminished public trust, suppressed votes, and tarnished local democracy.

And despite the numerous and publicly admitted problems with the election, write-in commissioner candidate Connie Zaffino was the only candidate to request an investigation. No other candidate—winner or loser—requested oversight.

Worse, as of this date, our newly elected County Commissioners have done little to acknowledge the problem, and nothing to prevent the problems from happening in the upcoming presidential election, which will be the most important election of our generation.

Editor’s note: A request for information about the County’s response to the voting issues was sent to Board of Commissioners Chair Ben Kafferlin, who delegated it to Commissioner Jeff Eggleston. As of this date, no information about a County response has been provided to The Allegheny Voice.

While many frustrated voters did their best to muddle through the Election Day confusion, that should not mean voters passively shrug off the problems without vociferous complaint. If anyone’s vote was suppressed for any reason—even inadvertently—our first duty as citizens is to make sure it never happens again.

The investigation requested by Ms. Zaffino has concluded with a finding of no “criminal conduct” on the part of County or election officials. However, numerous procedural and technical issues were substantiated, and suggestions of impropriety were clear—none of which have been addressed by the new Board of Commissioners.

Recommended actions to restore election integrity

Sugar-coating Election Day snafus serves no one. Voting is the fundamental right upon which all others rest. The suppression of even one vote yields an inaccurate election, and no one should be more vocal about the problems than those who ran for office. Even if they won—especially if they won—they should demand essential corrective actions, including the following:

  • Conduct a thorough audit of the vote and make the results public. The new voting machines are supposed to make audits and recounts easy. We taxpayers spent $650,000 for these machines. Let’s get our money’s worth. The County should at minimum conduct an audit of votes at precincts that experienced long delays or which experienced other problems. (Since a recount in the upcoming presidential election is likely, this audit will be an excellent opportunity to prepare.)

Note: Paper ballots are destroyed four months after an election, so any delay could make an audit impossible. Time is of the essence.

  • Revise the process for selecting members of the County Board of Elections to ensure, to the extent possible, that all members 1) are non-partisan and 2) cannot be influenced by candidates, especially when those candidates include current commissioners. Unfortunately, this will preclude County employees supervised by (or whose salary is determined by) Commissioners. Instead, this Committee must be comprised of volunteers. (Current poll workers may be likely candidates.)
  • It should go without saying that no current commissioner who is also a candidate should attend any meeting of the Board of Elections. The independence of the Board of elections from influence by a commissioner must be sacrosanct.
  • The number of voting machines should be determined exclusively by the Board of Elections. While the expenditure of funds to make this purchase may be voted up or down by the commissioners, at least that vote will occur openly in a public meeting monitored by citizens and the media. No individual commissioner should have the authority to determine how many voting machines are purchased.
  • Again, it should go without saying, that no commissioner or candidate should have any role whatsoever in collecting or reporting the vote, including on the warrenvotes.com website.
  • No candidate should ever have access to voting machines; and on Election Day, no candidate should have access to the offices where the final vote tallies are electronically compiled.
  • The County should also consider placing the Director of Elections under the direct supervisory authority of the Board of Elections.

In the Warren Times Observer’s opinion piece about the rampant voting problems, Winston Churchill was quoted: “It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

That is true. But a quote by Pennsylvanian Ben Franklin seems more relevant. In 1787 when Franklin was asked: “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” He replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

In 2016, of the 6,115,402 votes cast in Pennsylvania, President Trump won by only 44,000. Any amount of voter suppression in Warren County (or in any other Pennsylvania counties) in the upcoming presidential election could determine whether whether President Trump wins a second term. The integrity of local elections in swing states matter more than ever.

It is now 233 years after Franklin’s quote. But the inaction by the Warren County Commissioners to restore public faith in our local elections proves that the matter of keeping our democratic republic remains unsettled.