Wilkes-Barre, Times Leader
By TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER
Wednesday, October 27, 2004 Page: 1A
WILKES-BARRE – Concerned some voters might have been given too little time to return absentee ballots, the Luzerne County Election Board voted Tuesday to seek court approval to extend the deadline to receive ballots from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1.
The board, made up of the three county commissioners, unanimously approved the action based on concerns raised by some voters who did not receive the ballots until last Friday or Saturday. That left them a week or less to complete and mail it in by the Oct. 29 deadline.
A deadline extension is not guaranteed, however.
Board attorney Neil O’Donnell said the request will be heard by Luzerne County Judge Thomas Burke or Judge Michael Toole, who are handling election matters.
At O’Donnell’s suggestion, the board voted to have him file the motion on Friday to give the board time to alert the public of the issue.
Commissioners stressed the delay in receiving the ballots was not caused by local election officials, but by legal challenges to independent candidate Ralph Nader’s placement on the Pennsylvania ballot.
Bureau of Elections Director Leonard Piazza said ballots for out of state residents were mailed Oct. 19, and ballots for Luzerne County residents who won’t be present in the county on election day were mailed Oct. 20 and Oct. 21.
Normally the ballots would have been mailed earlier, but Piazza said state officials advised him to wait until the 19th to ensure all challenges to Nader’s placement were resolved.
Nader was officially knocked off the Pennsylvania’s ballot on Oct. 19, when the state supreme court upheld challenges to his nominating petitions.
County Commissioner Stephen Urban said he believed election law required all absentee ballots be mailed by Oct. 19, but Piazza said the law clearly states election bureaus must begin the mailings by the 19th. It does not say by which date they must be completed.
Piazza said he is certain the election bureau is in compliance with the law. The board opted to seek the extension, however, to ensure all voters are given as much opportunity as possible to cast their vote.
“I certainly want to make sure this body does what it can to enfranchise as many people as possible,” said Commissioner Todd Vonderheid.
Mountain Top resident Rose Sturgeon said she was pleased by the decision to seek the extension. Her two daughters, both college students out of the area, received ballots that were postmarked Oct. 21.
Sturgeon said one of her daughters, living in California, was busy with midterms and she was concerned that her ballot wouldn’t make it back to Wilkes-Barre by Friday because the mail can take four days.
Sturgeon said she would prefer if the board would accept ballots postmarked by Oct. 29, if not necessarily in hand. She added that she believes an extension until Nov. 1 could also work.
“It gives her a couple more days at least,” Sturgeon said.
The bureau of elections was hopping Tuesday afternoon.
Piazza and his employees assisted a steady stream of absentee ballot seekers who called or visited the office between 4 and 5 p.m., the deadline to request a ballot.
Mary McEvoy-Dockeray of Jackson Township called about 4 p.m. to inquire about the deadline. She was in the office by 4:30 p.m., filled out a ballot request and voted, because she will be in Texas on business on Election Day.
“I didn’t realize today was the last day,” she said. “They were very helpful here.”
A caller from Florida was giving one employee a hard time, so Piazza took the call 15 minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline. The man claimed an employee previously told him he could vote over the telephone.
Piazza said the voter swore at him when he offered an explanation.
Penn State political science professor Martin Slann arrived at the office after 4 p.m.
“I think you could say I’m a procrastinator,” he said.
Bridget Durkin of West Pittston filled out a ballot request on the ride over to the election bureau. The Princeton University student returns to school today and said she didn’t have an absentee ballot at school.
Four minutes before closing time, a man dropped off a ballot request for someone else.
At exactly 5 p.m., according to the office time stamp clock, Piazza declared the deadline passed.
“Good job, everybody,” he said, clapping his hands.
– Staff writer Bonnie Adams contributed to this story.
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