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.

Class VI Rapids: Pennsylvania’s EcoApocalyptic Legislators

[Class VI Rapids are defined as: “Nearly impossible and very dangerous. Involves risk of life.” So Class VI Rapids is the title of this regular collection of recent life-threatening environmental stories affecting The Allegheny River watershed.]

The term “EcoApocalyptic” is not hyperbole. It is not snark. It is, if anything, understatement.

The Apocalypse as described in the the biblical book of Revelation is the final destruction of the world. With respect to the world as we know it, this aptly describes the consequences of the climate crisis. As Oxford Physics Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert says, “It’s time to panic.”

The Apocalypse, of course, is religious prophecy. The EcoApocalypse, on the other hand, is scientific prediction. The EcoApocalypse is the allegorical Apocalypse made real in superstorms, disease outbreaks, heatwaves, climate wars, droughts, floods and species extinction.

There are so many Pennsylvania legislators bent on hastening our collective demise, it is impossible to cover them all in a single post. So this is a just a sampling.

State Representative Kathy Rapp

Despite her conservative bona fides that regard jobs as the currency of modern politics, in this video Representative Rapp (Republican, Allegheny River Watershed, District 65) displays her abject distaste for jobs–yes, jobs! She is so clearly biased in favor of jobs in the declining oil and gas sector that she disparages jobs in the rapidly growing green energy sector.

In questioning Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary McDonnell and Rob Altenburg, Director of Energy Center, PennFuture, she expresses angry disbelief that clean energy jobs outnumber oil and gas jobs in Pennyslvania and in her own district.

She then virtue-signals her concern over the future environmental impact and cost of recycling those abhorrently toxic—wait for it—wind turbines!

In her outrage over wind-turbine pollution, Representative Rapp, of course, completely ignores the real and present-day threats to human and environmental health resulting from her own advocacy of increased oil and gas industry pollution.

If Representative Rapp was sincere in her concern about industrial pollution, wouldn’t she have taken this opportunity to ask DEP Secretary McDonnell hard questions about permitting Warren Generating Station to pour 29,000 gallons per day of “treated” coal ash leachate (containing lead, aresenic, mercury, uranium, etc.) into the Allegheny River in her district?

Wouldn’t she have asked Secretary McDonnell what he was doing to clean the mercury from the impaired section of Allegheny River downstream from the Warren Generating Station in her district?

Wouldn’t she have asked about cleaning the radioactive elements contaminating 2.64 miles of Allegheny River bottom sediments downstream from the now defunct/bankrupt Waste Treatment Corporation plant that once dumped “treated” oil and gas wastewater into the Allegheny River in her district?

Could Representative Rapp’s pearl-clutching over recycling wind turbines have anything to do with the fact that wind generated electricity is the cheapest form of generated electricity? In 2017, Scientific American reported “U.S. wind energy will continue to be one of the lowest cost electricity generation technologies available, with the long-term wind electricity price available through a power purchase agreement coming in at about half the expected cost of just running a natural gas power plant.”

Read the entire transcript of the Pennsylvania House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing.

PA Senator Joe Scarnati

Map of gravel roads in Pennsylvania where oil and gas wastewater has been spread.
Gravel roads in Pennsylvania where oil and gas wastewater has been spread. PennState Institute of Energy and the Environment. (Visit link to zoom in.)

Senator Joe Scarnati, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, represents Allegheny River Watershed District 25 in rural north central Pennsylvania. He has accepted $593,313 from the oil and gas industry, a tidy sum that bought an especially industry-pleasing (and toxic) piece of legislation he sponsored—Senate Bill 790, the Conventional Oil and Gas Act.

SB 790 passed in the Senate without a floor debate on a narrow 26-23 vote. Among many ecocidal rules in the bill, perhaps the most prominent is making it legal again to spread radioactive oil and gas wastewater on gravel roads (see map above), despite a 2018 PennState study that determined brine spreading had already dumped 200 times more carcinogenic radium onto Pennsylvania soil and into streams than all previous oil and gas industry spills.

It would be far better for the Pennsylvania environment and for the health of Pennsylvanians if Senator Scarnati would spend more of his time and campaign funds jetting around Europe, where he used his campaign credit card to pay for meals at posh restaurants and lodging in tourist areas.

For a comprehensive review of Senate Bill 790, visit the PA Environment Blog.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey is afraid Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren may keep their promises to ban fracking if elected president.

To prevent that, Toomey has sponsored a bill that prevents a president from using executive authority, such as invoking a national emergency, to ban fracking. Toomey refers to fracking as the source of an “economic renaissance.”

In addition, Senator Toomey has also sponsored legislation to prevent state governors (such as New York Governor Cuomo) from blocking construction of gas pipelines, many of which originate in the fracked gas fields of Pennsylvania.

No wonder The Onion‘s 2014 spoof of Senator Toomey still rings so true: “ExxonMobil, Chevron Locked In Bidding War To Acquire Lucrative Pennsylvania Senator.”