If you vote in Northampton County, you have a number of ways to vote. You can vote in person at your polling place on election day. You can stop at the courthouse for early voting between now and October 23. You can also apply for a no-excuse mail-in ballot (MIB). If you're worried about making sure it gets to the elections office on time, you can drop it off at one of four drop-box locations established by the county and used in the previous two elections cycles. These locations correspond to county council districts. Drop-off boxes have proven to be controversial. A change in the hours at one of these locations has added fuel to the fire.
The drop-off box at the 911 Center is now going to be open 24/7, instead of during regular business hours. This decision was made by a county administration whose Executive is seeking re-election. This may contravene the Home Rule Charter, which specifically states that the Elections Commission, and not the Executive, "shall administer the system of elections."
Last week, Northampton County Council member John Cusick was the first to question what's going on. He was told by Administrator Charles Dertinger that these are administrative decisions. Dertinger explained that, since the 911 Center is open 24/7 anyway, people are being allowed to drop off ballots there. The change just conforms to reality, he added. Actually, in past elections, the drop-off box at 911 was limited to regular hours.
Is the 24/7 decision a mistake? That was the concern of nine voters at yesterday's meeting of the Northampton County's Elections Commission.. I had surmised that, after Cusick raised the issue, they would at least be asked to give their stamp of approval to this change. But no such request was made. In fact, the Elections Commission was there only to listen to Solicitor Rich Santee and Registrar Amy Cozze. The only votes they were allowed to take were to approve the minutes and adjourn.
Many of these voters who spoke brayed away about nonexistent election fraud, but a broken clock can still be right twice a day. They raised legitimate questions concerning the need for and security at a 24/7 drop box.
"How many ballots do you anticipate at 1 or 2 in the morning?" asked Linda Cole (sp?). She also said that voters should be able to see the surveillance videos. The County has refused to release videos from the courthouse drop-off box. It's unclear whether surveillance videos from other locations have been made available.
Review of these video would determine whether one voter, who claimed she personally witnessed voters bring in bags of ballots, is accurate.
Concerns were also raised about who monitors drop-off boxes. Elections Commissioner Frank DeVito was told that is within the purview of the county administration. That's nice, but it fails to answer the question. Is anyone really monitoring?
Solicitor Rich Santee assured the audience that drop-off boxes are specifically authorized by Act 77 of the Elections Code, though he acknowledged they are called "satellite offices" in the enabling legislation. He added their use was approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and a federal district court.
DeVito shared the concerns of the largely Republican audience. He noted that, before the primary, an attempt to limit drop-boxes to one location failed in a 3-2 vote. He stated the benefit of a 24/7 drop-off box is minimal when compared to the suspicions raised.
"I think we've come pretty far in making the vote easy," said DeVito. "I think the concerns in the community are more towards security than making the vote easier. ... The appearance of corruption is just as important as corruption itself."
Lamont McClure ran on eliminating county corruption, by the way.
DeVito then moved to recommend that the 911 Center drop-off box be limited to regular hours. He was stopped by Solicitor Rich Santee, who incidentally is an administrative appointee.
Santee advised that the Elections Commission was powerless to make this recommendation because it first needed to be on the agenda. That's nonsense. Santee himself told these Comm'rs they can only make recommendations. If that is so, a toothless recommendation is no "official action" and hence there could have been a vote without violating the Sunshine Act. Moreover, they could ratify their actions at a later meeting.
If the County had any sense, it would drop the 24/7 designation at 911, and explain in detail what surveillance efforts are made at drop-off boxes. Unfortunately, administrative hubris is creating an issue where there need be none.
What's going in here exposes yet another shortcoming in our Home Rule Charter. Clearly, the Exec and Council should decide on what voting systems are used since they foot the bill. They also should hire the elections office employees who participate in the pension plan and participate in county benefits. They control the purse strings. But it should be the Elections Comm'n, and not the Executive, who administers the actual election. That's what both the Charter and Elections Code say. They may have no say in the selection of epollbooks, but should have jurisdiction over any decisions about drop boxes or their hours. That's why it is the Elections Comm'n, and not the Exec, who certifies an elections. If it were merely a toothless recommending body, t would have no such power. Nor would it be able to decide disputed ballots, as it did in the Presidential.
Elections Comm'n Does Have Authority Over Conduct of Elections:
Authority for our Home Rule Charter comes from the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law, 53 Pa.C.S. Section 2901 et seq. A home rule government may "exercise any powers and perform any function not denied by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, by statute or by its home rule charter. All grants of municipal power to municipalities governed by a home rule charter ... shall be liberally construed in favor of the municipality." 53 Pa.C.S. Section 2961.
This enabling law imposes a limitation on the "registration of electors and the conduct of elections." Those matters "may not be contrary to or in limitation or enlargement of powers granted by statutes." Id. Section 2962(a)(5). Thus, a Home Rule Charter County is unable to allow same day registration or change election dates. Those relate to the conduct of elections and registration of voters. But they should be distinguished from the purchase of equipment or the hiring of employees, which has nothing to do with the actual conduct of an election.
Northampton County's Home Rule Charter establishes the Elections Commission to "administer the system of elections and the registration of voters under applicable law." HRC, Section 1007. (emphasis added.) That applicable law is both the Election Code and other provisions of the Home Rule Charter. They must be read in pari materia (together).
The one requirement the Election Code expressly places on a Home Rule Charter County is the appointment of at least one minority party representative on the Elections Comm'n. The Election Code also gives the Elections Commission authority to make purchases and hire and fire employees, but these provisions have nothing to do with the actual conduct of elections or registration of voters. Thus, a Home Rule Charter County can perform, these functions under other provisions established by law. .
Article XIII of the HRC establishes a career service to ensure professionalism in county employment. If the Elections Comm'n were able to hire and fire at its own pleasure, this would create the very kind of cronyism the HRC was intended to AVOID. Thus, the hiring and firing of employees, which is totally unrelated to the conduct of elections, is properly a function of the county's own hiring procedures.
Article II of the HRC gives County Council, and not the Elections Comm'n, authority over the purse strings. The purchase of a voting system is unrelated to the actual conduct of an election, and hence is the province of County Council.
To be sure, there are functions that are the sole province of the Elections Comm'n, such as investigations into voter fraud, acceptance of returns and drop boxes. Purchases and personnel are beyond the scope of this part-time volunteer body selected by party chairs. But the actual conduct of an election is their province, not that of an Exec seeking re-election.
Updated 9:01 am: In an earlier version of this story, I attributed the concerns raised by Frank DeVito to Dr. Alan Brau. I apologize to both for my error. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish speakers when I watch a meeting on YouTube.