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Westmoreland

Westmoreland's mistaken practice of allowing age-based absentee voting ends

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, 3:51 p.m.
The Westmoreland County Election Bureau
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The Westmoreland County Election Bureau

A week after Westmore­land County acknowledged it erred in allowing several hundred voters to improperly cast absentee ballots in this month's general election, officials are still trying to figure out why it occurred.

“The only thing we can really surmise is that what happened was a misinterpretation of the law,” said Beth Lechman, the county's election bureau director.

Voting officials allowed 278 people to cast absentee ballots for the Nov. 7 election solely because they were 65 and older. That accounted for 16 percent of nearly 1,700 absentee ballots submitted countywide. Voters cast 65,770 total ballots on Election Day in Westmoreland County, according to unofficial results from the election bureau.

Under state law, absentee ballots may be requested by voters who are out of town during an election, in the military or have work obligations that would prevent them from voting on Election Day. Age is not a prescribed reason for voting via absentee ballot.

Starting with elections in 2018, the county will no longer allow voters to cast absentee ballots because of age, Lechman said.

Since 2004, the county has allowed some voters to cast absentee ballots for being 65 or older.

According to figures from the election bureau, the practice was sporadically used over the years. Three absentee ballots were issued for age reasons in 2004, followed by one each in 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Those numbers grew to 10 in 2015, 77 in the 2016 primary — a presidential voting year — and to 125 in that fall's general election.

The 2017 spring primary saw 94 absentee ballots cast solely because of age.

A vigorous write-in campaign by incumbent Monessen Mayor Lou Mavrakis helped spark a surge in those numbers this fall. Mavrakis sought to upend Democratic nominee Matthew Shorraw, who won the May primary by 59 votes.

Elections officials said 238 of the improperly issued absentee ballots in the fall election came from Monessen.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said his office was contacted about the irregularity but no investigation was launched and he did not believe any laws were broken.

“We attended a meeting about it and advised the person who raised the issue to have people make a complaint to the district attorney's office. We never received any complaints,” Peck said.

Shorraw and Democratic Party officials first raised the absentee ballot issue with county officials about a week before the election. At that time, county elections officials said they would count those ballots this year. On Election Day, Shorraw filed a request for an injunction to halt those votes from counting but withdrew the lawsuit a day later after it became clear the more than 1,000 votes he received would be enough to overcome any write-in efforts from Mav­rakis or any other candidate.

Unofficial results found 795 write-in votes were cast in the Monessen mayoral race via ballots at the polls and through absentees.

While age is not a proper reason to vote via absentee ballot, voters may cast alternate ballots if they are physically unable to do so at their local polling location, Lechman said. Alternate ballots are different from absentee ballots and can be used by handicapped voters who vote in locations that prevent them from casting ballots in person because of their physical limitations. Lechman said 11 of the county's 305 voting precincts are not accessible to handicapped voters.

“As we need new locations, our goal is to move those to handicapped-accessible locations,” Lechman said.

Two of the county's polling locations that cannot accommodate some handicapped voters are in Monessen.

“If you need an alternate ballot, it is a different form than an absentee ballot application. If someone in the future requests an absentee ballot because they are 65 or older, they will be asked to provide additional information,” Lechman said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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