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House panel hears complaints about Pennsylvania election

Democrat Matt Cartwright carried district where Trump beat Biden in 2020

Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright leaves the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the Capitol on Nov. 15, 2022.
Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright leaves the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the Capitol on Nov. 15, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans in Congress are demanding to know how a shortage of paper ballots in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County on Election Day 2022 affected thousands of voters.

“Nearly one-third of precincts ran out of paper,” Wisconsin Republican Rep. Bryan Steil, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said during a hearing on the topic Tuesday. “This resulted in voters being turned away from the polls and being denied their right to vote.”

Steil and other Republicans said they view the Election Day blunders as examples of voter suppression. Among those speaking at the hearing was Jim Bognet, a Republican who lost the 2020 and 2022 elections to Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, a battleground in the northeastern part of the state that was carried by Donald Trump in 2020.

“The Luzerne County administration has done everything in their power to deny responsibility and evade accountability,” Bognet told the committee. “We must restore faith in fair elections for voters in both parties. I believe this can only be done through [a] thorough congressional investigation.”

Both sides agree the 2022 election in Luzerne County was a mess. Some polling places ran out of ballots, due to a paper shortage brought on by supply chain issues, and some voters had to cast provisional ballots. 

“There is no doubt there was a paper-related shortage … on Election Day. That, without a question, is a very, very bad thing,” said Rep. Joseph D. Morelle of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Administration panel. “I understand the remedy decided upon by local officials was to afford voters [a chance] to vote by other means. Nonetheless, there should never be a case where election officials are caught napping.”

But Morelle and other Democrats questioned the point of the congressional hearing and said the Luzerne County Election Day blunders do not constitute voter suppression, as suggested by the name of the hearing: “Government Voter Suppression in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.” Morelle also noted that House Republicans haven’t filed a formal complaint contesting the legitimacy of Cartwright’s win and local officials are already investigating the matter.

Neither Luzerne County election officials nor Pennsylvania state representatives responsible for election oversight attended the hearing in Washington. Both were invited but declined to appear, citing the ongoing inquiry by Luzerne County District Attorney Samuel M. Sanguedolce. 

Under questioning, Bognet said he didn’t file paperwork to contest the election with the House because a protracted battle over the seat would deprive the people of the district of representation while the complaint was being hashed out. “I believe he won the popular vote,” Bognet said of Cartwright, who won in November by about 6,600 votes, “but I know it was not a well-done election.”

The committee also heard from several Luzerne County residents, who described their voting experiences last year. Kim Buerger of Hunlock Creek, Pa., said she was preparing to go to the polls when she received a text from a friend telling her there was a shortage of paper ballots.

Buerger waited until 6 p.m. to vote and was handed a provisional ballot. After filling it out, she handed it to an election worker who placed the provisional ballot on top of a pile. “There was no lockbox, no security,” she said in videotaped testimony to the committee.

Buerger said she later checked an online system to see if her vote was counted; the system told her that her provisional ballot was not received.

“I don’t know if my vote counted or not,” Buerger told the panel. “[I’m] very discouraged about our election here in Luzerne County, and I am thankful you are looking into this matter.”

Cartwright did not speak at the hearing, but he released a statement supporting the district attorney’s inquiry.

“Well, of course we need an investigation,” he said. “And a hearing in Washington is also good, but it probably should have waited until the actual investigation is complete. Luzerne County has a very capable DA, and he is conducting that investigation. What we should not do is name the hearing beforehand ‘Government Voter Suppression’ and grandstand about it without any basis for such a thing.”

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