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Opinion: Luzerne Co. voting mess lingers on

It doesn’t get much more embarrassing than this: During the 2022 mid-term election last November, dozens of precincts in Luzerne County ran out of paper ballots.

Now more than five months later and after several inquiries, including a congressional hearing whose title was “voter suppression,” there are still no credible answers, and many of the county residents are angry that something so basic to an election could have gotten so screwed up.

Members of the House Administration Committee concluded that a paper shortage such as this is totally unacceptable. They called it a massive failure of election administration. With both Republicans and Democrats on this committee, acrimony was on full display as both sides debated whether what happened could be classified as voter suppression, as some critics contend, or a case of gross negligence brought on by inexperienced personnel.

County officials weren’t any help because they did not go to the hearing, saying that since this was an ongoing investigation, they had been advised not to make any comments or offer any possibilities as to what may have happened.

As Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization, concluded: “The hearing shows that even when everyone agrees that voters have faced unacceptable obstacles, the partisan divide still looms large.”

The chair of the congressional committee, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., was brutal in his disdain for the Luzerne officials not to have shown up. “I hope those officials who refused to testify today are watching, to hear from voters in Luzerne County whose votes were suppressed due to their negligence,” Steil said.

The committee’s ranking minority member, U.S. Rep. Joseph Morelle, D-New York, conceded that the paper shortage was unconscionable, but he was not ready to label what happened as an effort to suppress votes. “None of the testimony provided that I heard supports the title of this hearing,” Morelle said. He quoted from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website, which says voter suppression must include “intentionally deceiving” voters.

U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Georgia, had his own definition of voter suppression taken from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which defines it as any “legal or extralegal measure or strategy whose purpose or practical effect is to reduce voting.”

Through all of the political hyperbole, we still do not have a definitive answer on how the paper shortage occurred.

Once solidly Democratic, Luzerne County today has gone through a seismic political change in which Republicans have made sizable gains in voter registration and influence. Republicans trail Democrats by a mere 7,000 in voter registration statistics as of March.

Whereas Democratic President Barack Obama handily carried the county in the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections over Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney, respectively, Republican Donald Trump crushed Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 (58%-39%) and President Joe Biden in 2020, (57%-43%).

Going back to Nov. 8, 2022, Election Day, some Luzerne polling places had begun running out of paper by 9 a.m., just two hours after the polls had opened. By 8 p.m., when the polls were to have closed, one-third of the precincts had reported shortages. The situation had become so dire that a county judge ordered polls to stay open an extra two hours, until 10 p.m., to accommodate voters who had been unable to cast their ballots earlier in the day.

The fact that Luzerne election officials ordered thousands of pieces of ballot paper on Election Day was a dead giveaway that some had fallen asleep at the switch and failed to do their jobs earlier.

It’s unclear how many voters wound up not casting ballots because of the snafu, either because they gave up in disgust or refused to return to their voting location after being told of the shortage when they earlier arrived or because of the chaos and lines that had begun to form in the aftermath of the shortage.

These investigations are not over, and among federal, state and local officials, many lawmakers are weighing in on what to do and how to handle this embarrassment so that it does not happen again.

Luzerne’s Republican District Attorney Samuel M. Sanguedolce, who was among those who declined to appear before the congressional committee, said he is prepared to take criminal action, if warranted, once the investigation has been completed and if wrongdoing is established.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, suggested that because of the ineptness of Luzerne officials perhaps the Department of State should take over Luzerne’s election operation. If such an unprecedented move were to be taken, it would require new legislation, which my political contacts said would be difficult to pass since elections are typically handled by counties and an attempt by the state to get into the act could be interpreted as a power grab.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.