Rise in absentee ballots stirs up suspicion
In Monessen’s last municipal election, 32 people voted by absentee ballot. For Tuesday’s upcoming contest, the number stands at nearly 400 and counting — with more than half submitted by people who said they could not make it to polling places due to their age, a reason that is not allowed under state law.
Mayor Lou Mavrakis agreed his write-in campaign is responsible. Shortly after he lost the Democratic primary in May, he said he met with county election officials and a Westmoreland County assistant solicitor.
“I told them, ‘I’m going to have my elderly people vote absentee ballot,’ ” Mavrakis told the Tribune-Review.
He said he also warned them to expect a “heavy influx” of absentee ballots. County officials agreed that what he planned was legal, so he carried it out, Mavrakis said.
County election officials reported receiving 2,176 absentee ballot applications for next week’s election. So far, 1,546 of those have been cast. Absentee ballot requests from Monessen totaled 585, or one in four countywide, and 398 of those had been returned through Thursday, the county election bureau reported.
The deadline to submit absentee ballots is 5 p.m. Friday.
Of the absentee ballots cast so far by Monessen voters, 238 — or about 60 percent — came from people who obtained the ballots for being age 65 or older.
Voters in the rest of the county combined requested 43 absentee ballots for being 65 or older, elections officials said. As of Thursday, 24 of those had been returned.
State law allows people to vote via absentee ballot if they are out of town for work or military service, because they are physically unable to make it to their voting precinct or their government job duties prevent them from voting in person, among other reasons. Age alone is not an acceptable reason.
The county Democratic Committee reviewed some 300 absentee ballot applications from Monessen and determined that about two-thirds gave “65 or older” as the reason for their request, party lawyer David Millstein said.
The party considered challenging those ballots before the election but decided to wait and see if they impact the outcome, he said.
“If anybody that wins wins by more than the number of absentee ballots cast, it’s a moot point,” Millstein said.
Mavrakis won the 2013 general election by 345 votes, getting a total of 1,005 votes versus 660 votes for his Republican rival. There is no Republican candidate in Tuesday’s election.
Matthew Thomas Shorraw defeated Mavrakis in the May primary, receiving 733 votes to 674, according to official election results.
“I just think the whole thing is unfortunate,” Shorraw said. “All people need to vote. But they also need to do it the right way.”
He said the outcome of the election would determine whether he officially challenges the questionable absentee votes.
“It’s just a waiting game at this point,” he said.
Although state law doesn’t permit people to vote absentee because of their age, the county has accepted that reason for years, Beth Lechman, director of the county’s election bureau, said Wednesday in explaining that the practice would stop going forward.
She couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
The county’s agreement is another reason the Democratic party isn’t going to challenge the ballots before the election, Millstein said.
“It was an honest mistake,” he said. “Now they know, because they checked with Harrisburg, that they cannot do that.”
The county’s three commissioners also act as the election board.
Commissioner Chuck Anderson said this was the first time in his nearly nine years of service that this issue had come up with absentee ballots. He didn’t know how long the county had been issuing absentee ballots based on age.
“As I understand, it’s been going on for a while,” he said. “If it becomes an issue, we’ll definitely deal with it.”
Commissioner Ted Kopas said the ballots won’t be opened and counted until election day. Until that happens and someone issues a challenge, he couldn’t predict how the board would deal with the situation.
Commissioner Gina Cerilli said the county solicitor was reviewing whether an absentee ballot granted based on age could be challenged or thrown out. The election board will meet Nov. 13 to issue an opinion, she said.
Solicitor Melissa Guiddy couldn’t be reached for comment.
The commissioners anticipate that age-based absentee ballots could be challenged and urged people to vote in person at the polls Tuesday, even if they already mailed in an absentee ballot.
“We don’t know if the ballots could be challenged, but we’ve been told they could be,” Cerilli said.
Casting a vote in person will cancel that voter’s absentee ballot, and their vote at the polls will be what is counted.
“That is the safest way to eliminate any question,” Kopas said. “The best way to eliminate any uncertainty over your vote is to be there at the poll.”
Staff writers Jamie Martines and Matthew Santoni contributed to this story. Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, email@example.com or via Twitter @TribBrian.