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Columbia County Runs Smooth Elections with Small Staff Spotlight PA

This article Spotlight PAcollaboration with vote beat, a bipartisan news agency covering local election administration and voting. This article may be reprinted subject to the following conditions: Votebeat reissue policy.

BLOOMSBURGH — As counties around Pennsylvania scramble to count Tuesday, under pressure to report results within hours of the primary deadline, a small number of rural northeastern counties The election staff worked on creative solutions to accomplish such a task.

Very small number of people: 2 people.

Due to the need to process ballots from Pennsylvania’s various voting methods, some county election officials say they actually hold two separate elections each cycle. One of the most significant changes in state election history in recent history, as the 2019 law, which greatly expanded who can vote by mail, does not provide for a system in which counties must count ballots. Each county has designed a different process to accommodate

Some approaches work better than others, depending on county size, resources, and county government politics.

Columbia County, which has fewer than 39,000 registered voters, realized that it would not be able to run “two elections” more smoothly without a lot of extra help for its offices. Its election operations are now based on strong cooperation from officials throughout the county government.

“one of [counties’] Our core responsibility is the election, and we must do it well,” said Commissioner Chris Young, a Republican and member of the Columbia Election Commission. “My philosophy, and the other two commissioners were clearly in favor of it, was in full force. ’ is not said.”

“When we have an election, everyone is involved in the election,” he said.

The spirit of cooperation of county leaders extends to county residents. By getting people involved in election decision-making and letting them see every aspect of the electoral process for themselves, they say, they’ve won public trust. The county voters who supported Donald Trump by more than 30% in 2020 said they had faith in them in interviews on Day One.

County leaders aren’t sure they’ll get credit for their work, but they point out that election conspiracy theories aren’t as entrenched here as they are in other parts of the state, such as nearby Lycoming County. There, election conspiracy theorists successfully pressured county leaders to order elections. count by hand Earlier this year for the 2020 presidential election.

“We didn’t have antitrust laws,” said Young, who has consistently resisted election fraud accusations. .

Given the political turmoil caused by Tuesday’s results, it remains to be seen whether Colombia’s “all-out” campaign will continue beyond this year.

How Columbia conducts elections

Throughout Tuesday’s primary, two members of Columbia’s elections staff, Commissioner Matthew Lepaski and Assistant Voter Registration and Election Coordinator Thea Calas, received calls from poll workers and voters sent vote-by-mail ballots. I was busy collecting them and sending them back to the office.

So there was no more bandwidth to run another election for the county, the tally of about 1,900 mail-in ballots. The Columbia commissioners that make up the Election Commission turned their primary responsibilities over to a county official from outside the elections office, county personnel director Mercy Strachico.

In 2020, Strachko stepped up after seeing the elections department struggle to keep up with the influx of new mail-in ballot applications.

“They were so overwhelmed when it all started,” she said. “I just said, ‘I’ll take over.'”

Strachko then brought in reinforcements.

Strachco estimates that one employee can open 400 envelopes a day, and each election day, he assembles teams of employees from across the county to help.

Treasury officials arranged the ballots in alphabetical order ahead of primary election day to facilitate the counting of votes. County Chief Clerk Dave Witchey lent them a conference table in his office and helped upload the results at the end of the night. Jeannie Lapinski, county treasurer, smoothly cut open mail ballots with his hand-held envelope opener while taking calls on speakerphone about county finances.

All morning, four to six other employees would come in and out of the office to process stacks of ballots, and also carry a hand-held envelope slicer to open the outer and inner envelopes to spread out the ballots. rice field. By 10:15 a.m., all ballots received prior to the first day had been processed and were ready to be scanned that evening, along with the 75 or so ballots expected to arrive by Tuesday.

There are processing decisions that these workers can make and decisions that they cannot make. Mr. Strachco and other employees will automatically withhold post-mail ballots with errors that would result in an obvious disqualification, such as a voter not signing the envelope or the confidential envelope inside being lost. know. But more difficult questions, such as whether to count ballots dated in the wrong place on the return envelope, will still be decided by Mr. Lepasky.

But most of the time, Lepasky said he stays out of the way of the mail-in ballot team “because they’re doing a great job.”

carter walker / vote beat

Columbia County Election Commissioner Matthew Lepasky answers a call during the May 2023 city council primary.

Many counties choose to divide the duties of in-person and mail-in elections by the director and deputy director, with teams managing each.

Despite the relatively low voter turnout associated with municipal primaries, it’s not an option for Colombia, as Mr Lepasky and Mr Karas were busy running Tuesday’s in-person elections.

Columbia is a Republican-majority county with two Republican commissioners who could always beat the Democrats if they wanted to. However, County Clerk Witchey and Human Resources Director Strachco agreed with the Commission’s efforts to create a positive environment for staff to work together through bipartisan and collaborative leadership.

“We are very lucky. The county works as a team,” Strachco said. “We don’t always agree, but we are very lucky.”

Witchey said it was this culture that led to the campaign’s success. And that openness among staff extends to the community.

public perception

Columbia isn’t completely immune to election conspiracy theories, either.

Last August, at a local venue in Bloomsburg, Toni Suppe of Audit the Vought PA and Katherine Engel of True the Vought, conservative groups falsely claiming the 2020 election was rigged. A meeting of Brecht and other conspiracy theorists was held.

in a local group us people of columbia pennsylvaniasuccessfully filed petitions in some constituencies to recount ballots for the November midterm elections.

But Audit the Vote did not organize door-to-door activities in Columbia, as it did in Washington, Lancaster, Butler, and other more supported counties. The county also did not face the pressure of manual counting, a favorite of election skeptics who distrust the machines, as did nearby Lycoming County and York County in the south.

“I always tell people, if you want to challenge us, come see[our election process],” Witchey said.

While some counties allow only party members and qualified media to view their activities, Columbia University is happy to give a behind-the-scenes look to anyone with a question.

When a woman interested in the school board election stopped by shortly after polls closed on Tuesday night to ask if the results had come out, Ms Wichey said no, but said, “If you want to see the process, You are more than welcome to stay as is,” he added. ”

Voters and party officials interviewed by Votebeat and Spotlight PA said they appreciated the county’s transparency and trusted the process.

Republican Tom Treadway, from Bloomsburg, the county seat, said he hadn’t heard any complaints about county elections in his 20 years of living in the county.

Democrat Michael Conner, who delivered the mail-in ballot to the county office, said he was intrigued by the county’s offer to observe the process and might work with him.

Columbia County Republican Party Secretary Janine Penman said the agency was doing a “great job.”

“The questions I asked were always answered and there was always transparency,” she said. “They invite anyone. They say, ‘You can come in and have a look.'”

Young said the county sought community buy-in when selecting new voting machines in 2019, allowing residents to vote for their preferred machine.

Asked if confidence-building was possible because of Columbia County’s small size, Young said a larger county would have the same effect.

“Probably not to the level here, but they always give you as much access as possible and make sure they are as transparent as possible.”

what’s next for colombia

There is no guarantee that the current approach to Columbia County elections will remain unchanged.

How the elections are conducted is up to the county commissions, and an entirely new commission is likely to be inaugurated in January.

Republican Young won’t run for re-election this year, and another Republican commissioner, Rich Ridgeway, also lost his re-election on Tuesday.

On the Democratic side, incumbent David Kovac secured the spot in November’s ballot, as did another candidate, Patricia Lawton, who won more votes than Kovac. Only one seat is expected to win one of the three vacancies in November due to the county’s high Republican voting tendencies.

On Tuesday night, some county officials said they were already applying for new jobs as they were nervous about the prospect of an entirely new leadership after many years.

Witchey said he wasn’t necessarily concerned about a particular candidate or candidate’s statement, but rather “the possibility of something new”.

Witche intends to show how the system works now, regardless of who is on the election board after the November election, and to illustrate the county government’s collaborative culture, but ultimately said it was up to the commissioners to decide how things would run.

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https://www.spotlightpa.org/news/2023/05/columbia-county-primary-election-transparency-pennsylvania-2023/ Columbia County Runs Smooth Elections with Small Staff Spotlight PA

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