Philadelphia Imposes Last-Minute Change to How Votes Are Counted

Philadelphia Imposes Last-Minute Change to How Votes Are Counted
Voters arrive to cast ballots in the midterm election at a polling place in a school in Philadelphia, Pa., on Nov. 8, 2022. (Ryan Collerd/AFP via Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

Officials in Pennsylvania’s most populous city imposed last-minute changes on Nov. 8 to ballot processing that could delay the vote count.

In a 2–1 vote during a special meeting, the Philadelphia city commissioners decided to amend how ballots are processed.

The change focuses on reconciliation, or reviewing absentee ballots and in-person votes to make sure people don’t cast duplicate votes.

Facing pressure from a lawsuit, Commissioners Lisa Deeley, a Democrat, and Seth Bluestein, a Republican, voted to have reconciliation take place for ballots cast in the midterm elections.

“I want to make very clear that when there are conversations that occur later this evening about whether or not Philadelphia has counted all of their ballots, that the reason that some ballots will not be counted, it’s because Republican attorneys targeted Philadelphia—and only Philadelphia—trying to force us to do a procedure that no other county does,” Bluestein said before the vote. “And while we technically won the court case in Common Pleas Court, the opinion that was written was written in a way that we have no other choice but to go forward and reinstate reconciliation.”

Commissioner Omar Sabin, a Democrat, voted against reinstating the procedure.

Philadelphia officials recently announced that they decided to stop reconciliation. Poll workers, backed by the Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections group, sued in late October over the decision, arguing that state law requires the process, which identified 40 instances of illegal duplicates in the 2020 primary.

In an order handed down on Nov. 7, Common Pleas Judge Anne Marie Coyle denied a request for a preliminary injunction, or an injunction against rolling back reconciliation, finding that the motion was filed too close to the midterms and that the relief “would cause a greater measure of harm to the electoral process conducted in the upcoming general election ... than would denial of their Petition.”

Deeley testified to the judge that commissioners had chosen to stop reconciliation because “she had deemed it no longer needed” because it was “labor intensive and cumbersome.”

There were also concerns that keeping reconciliation would cause conflict with requirements laid out in Act 88, signed into law in July. The act granted taxpayer funds to officials to run elections. Deeley, however, acknowledged that she never contacted state officials who administer the grants to discuss any of the professed concerns. She was unable to give reasons why the allocated $5.7 million was not used to improve reconciliation or produce an alternate system.

The evidence in the case shows officials failed to consider how the public would react to the late announcement that reconciliation was not going to be utilized and that the officials “have unwisely discounted the inherent deterrence of fraudulent voting value that the Poll Book Rendition process has afforded the City of Philadelphia even in its unimproved and imperfect state,” Coyle said.

The decision itself might result in a demand for the return of the grant money, according to the judge.

Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections was recently founded by Republicans including Karl Rove. Derek Lyons, president and CEO of the group, said the commissioners’ vote to reinstate reconciliation “will safeguard Philadelphia’s ballot box from duplicate votes.”

“Any duplicate vote undermines the integrity of the system,“ he said. ”We know that double voting occurs and that it happens for various reasons, good, bad, ugly, and illegal. Conducting the audit will protect the integrity of the count. As voters increasingly opt to vote by mail-in ballot, it is more critical to audit the ballots to guard against double voting.”