A final ballot count at a Lehigh County judges’ race in 2021 appeared to result in a narrow victory for Democratic nominee Zac Cohen over Republican David Ritter on Thursday.
In last month’s Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s 14th Senate district, candidate Tara Zrinski gave way this week to opponent Nick Miller.
Last November, the US Supreme Court issued an unsigned order allowing Lehigh County election officials to count 257 mail-in ballots that had no handwritten date but were received in a timely manner.
Based on that ruling, Thursday’s census gives Cohen a 10-year term as judge of the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas with a count of 32,669 votes to 32,664 for Knight, according to Tim Benyo, the county’s director of voter registration and elections. Both candidates are lawyers.
Ritter said in a statement to lehighvalleylive.com: “We are disappointed with the results of today’s vote with an undated statement. In the next few days, my legal team and I will be discussing our options regarding an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.”
Cohen was not immediately available for comment.
Without those ballots, Ritter would take the third and final judge seat in the 2021 election by a 74-vote margin over Cohen. Tom Caffrey and Tom Capehart secured the other two seats after the still unofficial results of the election.
Pennsylvania electoral law requires voters to write a date on the envelope in which they mail in their ballots. However, the handwritten date is not used to determine whether the ballot was cast in a timely manner, as the envelope is postmarked by the post office and timestamped by counties upon receipt.
In each case, counties have acknowledged accepting ballots with incorrect dates.
The 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia had ruled that the requirement of a date next to the voter’s signature on the outside of the return envelope was “irrelevant” in state election law and not a reason to discard such ballots.
Judge Samuel Alito, in a dissent against last week’s order, warned that the matter could affect November’s election. Alito, along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, wrote that he believed the 3rd Circuit was “very likely wrong.”
In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, settled this week after the May 17 primary, Zrinski conceded Miller the 14th district election based on an alleged settlement filed Wednesday by one of nine voters from Lehigh and Northampton counties lawsuit was announced. The plaintiffs argued that ballots mailed in after Election Day and others mailed in without a “secret envelope” should be counted in the race, which was led by Miller over Zrinski with 42 votes.
The lawsuit, filed by Allentown’s attorney Matthew Mobilio, says 117 absentee ballots were uncounted because they were not sealed in the unnamed envelope and 143 ballots were uncounted because they were received after 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Mobilio announced the settlement with the electoral boards of Lehigh and Northampton counties, saying it envisages “major reforms to both counties’ voting eligibility processes and voter education efforts,” according to a press release.
Zrinski explained in the press release: “Ensuring that every vote is counted was my top priority. This agreement represents a move towards that goal while also allowing us to move towards the November elections. While I am deeply saddened that the votes in this race will not be counted, meaning I will not be the state senator for District 14, what improves mail-in voting and ensures better access to the ballot box in future elections is the most important thing to me.”
The 14th Ward extends across northwest Northampton County and slopes south into the Allentown area of Lehigh County. Zrinski is a Northampton County councilwoman. Miller is on the Allentown School Board. The Democratic primary winner will face Republican primary winner Dean Browning for a four-year term as state senator in the Nov. 8 election.
The settlement will allow final confirmation of the primary election results, Mobilio said in Wednesday’s publication: “Today we secured a major victory for Lehigh and Northampton County voters.
“Although the results of the May election will not be affected by this agreement, these new measures will help protect future elections from being called into question because of uncounted ballots and help voters understand what they are doing.” need to comply with the law. ‘ continued Mobilio. “This settlement does not solve all problems with Pennsylvania’s election laws. However, we believe this is a big step in the right direction, and hopefully the General Assembly will use the recent voter complaints as an impetus for major electoral reform in Harrisburg.”
Lehigh County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mobilio’s announced settlement. Northampton County officials announced Thursday that the results of the May 17 primary are official, barring the 14th Circuit Senate race pending a court ruling.
“I would like to thank the members of our Electoral Commission for their dedication to ensuring that the citizens of Northampton County receive fair, legal and accurate elections,” said Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, confirming voting in all other races. “I would particularly like to thank the voters for their participation in our democracy.”
According to Mobilio, as part of the settlement, Lehigh County has agreed to:
- Notify any voters whose naked ballots are discovered before 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, or provide the names of those voters to party officials who are on site during the primary poll so party officials can notify voters;
- Consider purchasing a ballot sorter that has the ability to weigh returned ballots or measure their thickness so voters can be alerted to possible bare ballots;
- Consider notifying voters if, after receiving their ballot, they believe they may have cast a naked ballot;
- Consider changing the color of the non-disclosure envelope to something more conspicuous than white so that the non-disclosure envelope stands out to the voter and is easily distinguishable from other materials provided with their mail-in ballot;
- Include with all outbound ballot applications and ballot-by-mail applications (including permanent voter mailings) an insert emphasizing the importance of providing contact information; and
- Include messages on the Lehigh County Voter Registration website emphasizing the importance of providing contact information.
According to Mobilio, Northampton County has agreed to the following:
- Include messages to Northampton County voters emphasizing the importance of providing contact information, including a notice on the Northampton County Voter Registration website;
- During the preliminary briefing, which begins on or after 7 a.m. on Election Day, the district must disclose the names of any voters whose naked ballots are discovered before 8 p.m. on Election Day to party and/or candidate officials who are on site during the area code so party representative(s) can notify voters; and
- Consider changing the color of the non-disclosure envelope to something more conspicuous than white so that the non-disclosure envelope stands out to the voter and is easily distinguishable from other materials provided with their mail-in ballot.
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The Associated Press and senior reporter Kurt Bresswein contributed to this report. Reach him below email@example.com.