Pennsylvania County That Ran Out of Ballots Must Face Disenfranchised Voters, Court Rules

Voters ask court to ensure the county’s election process is run properly before the next election.
Pennsylvania County That Ran Out of Ballots Must Face Disenfranchised Voters, Court Rules
County officials recount ballots in Pennsylvania as seen in a 2022 file photo. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Beth Brelje
12/5/2023
Updated:
12/5/2023
0:00

In the 2022 general election, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, ran out of paper ballots in some precincts on election day. Now the county is being sued by voters who say they were disenfranchised when they were told to come back and vote later, and after several return trips to polling places, they missed their chance to vote.

On the ballot for the Nov. 8, 2022, election was an open governor’s race between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano and an open U.S. Senate seat sought by Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz. Both Democratic candidates won.

Luzerne County asked the court to dismiss the case, and this week, a judge in federal court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied that request.

“We are very pleased with this opinion. The court makes clear that the county cannot sweep what happened in 2022 under the rug by chalking it all up to a big ‘whoops,’” Pennsylvania trial lawyer Wally Zimolong, who often works on constitutional cases, told The Epoch Times. “The county’s maladministration of the 2022 general election violated the constitutional rights of an untold number of voters; plaintiffs are but two of those voters. The Court has given plaintiffs a green light to proceed with their case to vindicate their rights, which the County denied.”

The plaintiffs are voters William French and Melynda Anne Reese. Mr. French said in court papers that he went to his polling place and was told he could not vote because they were out of ballots. He was told to return later, and he did, but still, there were no ballots. He was not able to return a third time.

Ms. Reese said she returned to the polling place three times, and each time, the ballots were missing. At 9:15 p.m., the polling place called and told her they had a ballot she could use to vote, but by then, she was not able to leave her caregiver responsibilities and go vote.

“Defendants’ claim that plaintiffs’ complaint is deficient because they were not outright denied the right to vote, but plaintiffs need not be outright denied the right to vote for their voting rights to be violated,” Mr. Zimolong argued in court papers.

The case accuses Luzerne County of supplying voting districts with an inadequate number of ballots, having inadequate backup response procedures, hiring an unqualified director, and failing to train the director.

The voters ask the court to enter a declaratory judgment that defendants’ administration of elections in Luzerne County violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments; and to make the county, before the next election, adopt and enforce uniform standards to ensure that every election district is adequately supplied with a number of ballots required under the Pennsylvania Election Code, emergency ballots, provisional ballots, and functioning voting machines. They also ask that the county ensure every registered and qualified voter is able to vote without unreasonable delay or hardship on election day; recruit and train employees, including election officials and poll workers, before each election to ensure that the election is properly staffed and administered. They also ask for nominal damages and attorneys’ fees.

The Epoch Times asked Luzerne County officials for comments on this story. It did not respond, but the Luzerne County District Attorney’s office released a report in June 2023 after investigating how the county ran out of ballots.

The report concluded there was no evidence of criminal intent uncovered. The report said 16 precincts ran out of paper.

“We could not uncover any evidence whatsoever that paper had been removed from the machines. The machines were secured in the warehouse, which was under surveillance,” the report said, adding that based on purchase orders and invoices before election day, it is likely the paper had not been ordered for election day. The election staff was made up almost entirely of new employees with less than six months on the job, and that likely played a factor, the report said.

“The evidence shows that the failure to provide paper to the polling places was not a deliberate act, but rather a catastrophic oversight,” the county report said.

It is not the first time the Luzerne County Elections Bureau has had trouble managing the flow of ballots. In the 2020 election, nine ballots were discarded by a temporary employee.

The Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office requested a federal investigation over the matter after it learned that nine completed military, general election ballots had been received and discarded by the former employee and later retrieved from a dumpster.

“After a thorough investigation conducted by the FBI and prosecutors from my office, we have determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove criminal intent on the part of the person who discarded the ballots,” then-acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler said in a statement. “Therefore, no criminal charges will be filed, and the matter is closed.”

Beth Brelje is a national, investigative journalist covering politics, wrongdoing, and the stories of everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances. Send her your story ideas: [email protected]
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