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Two Republican Congressional candidates in Western Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday seeking permission to post poll watchers at seven satellite election offices that were approved last month in Allegheny County.
The complaint contends that poll watchers in the satellite offices are necessary to preserve the integrity of the election. The suit references a mistake announced earlier this week that nearly 29,000 voters received the wrong ballot in the mail because of an error by the company contracted to handle the printing and mailing of them.
The lawsuit, filed by Sean Parnell, a Republican running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, and Luke Negron, a Republican running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, includes a motion for a temporary restraining order.
It names as defendants the Allegheny County Board of Elections, and its three members, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, both Democrats; and County Councilman Sam DeMarco.
Attorney Thomas W. King III, who filed the complaint, said that without transparency, people will lose confidence in the election process.
“This could upset the apple cart in the entire election in Pennsylvania,” he said Friday evening. “There’s no precedent for what they’re doing.”
A spokeswoman for the county said she could not comment on pending litigation.
On Sept. 17, the Board of Elections unanimously approved seven satellite election offices — including at the Boyce Park Ski Lodge; CCAC South and Homewood; the County Office Building; the Department of Public Works garage in Carnegie; the North Park and South Park ice rinks and Shop ’n Save in the Hill District.
According to a news release issued by Allegheny County at the time, the satellite offices were opened as a result of the pandemic to ensure voters have a safe place to return their completed ballots or to apply for a mail-in ballot.
The offices are open to the public, and people are permitted to enter at will.
But the complaint alleges that two men attempted to obtain poll watcher certificates for the satellite offices on Wednesday and Thursday and were denied. Their affidavits, attached to the complaint, said that they were told by a county elections division employee that certificates were not available and had not yet been printed.
According to the Pennsylvania Election Code, poll watchers may be present “at any public session or sessions of the county board of elections, and at any computation and canvassing of returns of any primary or election and recount of ballots or re-canvass of voting machines.”
The complaint alleges that the satellite offices are locations where citizens are voting.
“[I]t is incontrovertible that the satellite offices are places where the citizens of Allegheny County can vote – at least for this year – and there is no question that thousands of voters have already exercised that right,” the complaint said.
Each candidate, political party or political body may have one poll watcher, the complaint said. Under the Election Code, poll watchers can keep a list of voters and may challenge anyone making application to vote and ask for proof of qualifications.
Not allowing poll watchers at the satellite locations, the complaint said, is a violation of the state Elections Code. Further, the filing alleges that disparate treatment of satellite offices versus polling places is a violation of the candidates’ rights under the Equal Protection Clause.
The complaint also references the error announced Wednesday by the county that nearly 29,000 voters received incorrect ballots.
“What’s worse is that the Board of Elections missteps violate not only plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, but the constitutional rights of all the citizens of Allegheny County – including those citizens who have been recently sent incorrect ballots,” the complaint said. “The Board of Elections’ changing the rules of the ongoing federal election undoubtedly violate the Equal Protection Clause.”
The complaint accuses the Board of Elections relative to the ballot error of acting in “an arbitrary and capricious manner’ by reissuing non-provisional ballots to those people who have already cast their votes.
The complaint alleges that even the opening of the satellite offices is contrary to state election code but does not seek to shut them down.
Instead, the complaint asks the court to determine the validity of ballots already cast at the satellite offices; find that denying poll watchers at those offices is unconstitutional; and declare that the rights of voters in Allegheny County have been violated by the defendants.
“[T]ime is running out — or may have already ran out — to prevent immediate and irreparable…