Wilkes-Barre, Times Leader
By TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER
Saturday, October 30, 2004 Page: 1A
WILKES-BARRE – A Luzerne County judge has extended the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots until the close of the polls at 8 p.m. on Election Day – four days beyond the deadline set by the state, and a day later than election officials had sought.
Judge Thomas Burke said he approved the additional time because challenges to independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s presence on the Pennsylvania ballot led to delays in mailing. That could have prevented some voters from getting the ballots to the bureau of elections by the original deadline, which was 5 p.m. Friday.
The county election board filed a motion Friday morning seeking to extend the deadline until Nov. 1 at 5 p.m. But Burke went a step further, basing his decision on federal election law that election board attorney Neil O’Donnell cited during a brief hearing Friday.
O’Donnell said federal election law stipulates that, independent of state law, absentee ballots cast for the office of president and vice president can be accepted up until the close of the polls.
The law applies only to the presidential office and no other local, county or state offices that are on the ballot.
Following the federal law to the letter would mean the county election bureau would have to count all absentee ballots twice after separating them into two categories based on when they were received: those that qualified only for the presidential office, and those that qualified for all offices.
Because of that, O’Donnell suggested it was more prudent to extend the deadline for all offices, and Burke agreed.
Burke said he made the decision “in the interest of the electorate” who will benefit by maximizing the opportunity to vote.
“I want to emphasize the court’s ruling is constrained to the specific facts of this case. The unusual Nader litigation coupled with this being a presidential election year are significant,” he said.
The election board had placed legal ads in the three area newspapers announcing its intention to seek the extension. Burke sought input from the public before entering his ruling. No one spoke up.
Absentee ballots are designed for voters who cannot be present in their voting precinct on Election Day. That typically includes those who travel or are temporarily living out of state.
Bureau of Elections Director Leonard Piazza said he does not anticipate the extended deadline will create problems for election officials.
But he acknowledged it might cause an unusual situation for voters who hand deliver absentee ballots on Election Day, because it will be obvious the voter was in the area.
Piazza stressed that does not mean the voter was ineligible to vote absentee. State election law allows for an absentee ballot as long as the voter certifies they could not be in their precinct. There could be many possible reasons for that.
“If they work in Wilkes-Barre and live in Shickshinny and they’re working all day and can’t get to the polls, they can bring the ballot to the election bureau,” he said. “That’s an acceptable reason.”
Piazza said voters who do show up at the bureau on Election Day will not be questioned by workers. “I have no way of knowing if you are out of your municipality or are able to get to your polling place. We take these things at face value.”
He cautioned voters not to attempt to use the absentee ballot system for “convenience voting.”
Absentee ballot voters are required to sign a sworn statement attesting they could not be in their precinct on Election Day. If they are not being truthful, they are committing election fraud and their vote could be negated, he said.
“If you can go to a polling place, go to a polling place,” he said.