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Another day, another court hearing, and still no final outcome in Luzerne County state House race

State Rep. Mike Cabell, left, and challenger Jamie Walsh
State Rep. Mike Cabell, left, and challenger Jamie Walsh

State Rep. Mike Cabell’s cousin testified Wednesday he lived in Schuylkill County the day he voted in a Luzerne County House race because he thought he was still registered at his former address and could vote that way legally.

Shonin Vance, Cabell’s lawyer, contends Cabell first cousin Shane O'Donnell’s provisional vote should count in the 117th House District Republican primary election race because of state law. Vance argues the law allows people to vote in their former county if they move within 30 days of an election.

O’Donnell, 29, said he officially moved from Butler Township in Luzerne County, where he grew up and lived with his parents, to McAdoo in Schuylkill County on March 29. That’s when he started sleeping there every night, he said. That’s 25 days before the April 23 primary.

“Very surprised,” O’Donnell said of his reaction when a Butler voting precinct poll worker told him he wasn’t registered in Luzerne.

O’Donnell testified before a three-judge county court panel’s hearing on Cabell’s appeal of two provisional ballots — the one he cast, which the county Board of Elections and Registration ruled shouldn’t count because he moved, and another the board ruled should count.

Cabell wants the counted provisional rejected because the voter, Timothy J. Wagner, signed his ballot’s outer envelope once instead of the required twice.

One vote could matter in the race because gutter installation company owner Jamie Walsh, of Ross Township, leads Cabell by only three: 4,728 to 4,725.

Up to 36 votes remain either uncounted, in dispute or both. The elections board and both candidates agree 12 other provisional ballots should count, but elections officials have said they won’t be tallied until the court decides on the disputed two.

Cabell also wants the judges to order the elections board to review 22 write-in ballots and count any that show the voter clearly intended to vote for him.

No final court ruling on either appeal is expected until at least Wednesday.

O'Donnell describes move

O’Donnell testified he bought the McAdoo home in June but spent the months leading up to his move renovating it. He lived in Butler and only slept a few nights in McAdoo, he said.

But in December, he applied to renew his vehicle registration and that triggered changes in his voter registration.

He used the McAdoo address to register his vehicle because he knew that’s where he would begin living well before the new registration expired, he said.

Under new state Department of Transportation rules ordered last year by Gov. Josh Shapiro, residents renewing a driver’s license or vehicle registration are automatically registered to vote unless they opt out. O’Donnell’s car registration renewal triggered an automatic notice of the new, Schuylkill County address to Luzerne County’s elections bureau.

Based on that, acting elections director Emily Cook testified, O’Donnell’s Luzerne County voter registration was canceled and he was registered in Schuylkill County.

O’Donnell said he didn’t realize that happened until he showed up to vote at his usual precinct and couldn’t vote the usual way. Instead, he cast the provisional ballot.

Wagner's testimony

Aided by a cane and a court staffer, Wagner, 76, shuffled slowly to the witness stand before testifying he went to his Lake Township polling place expecting to vote like he always does, too.

Instead, a poll worker told him he had received a mail-in ballot. He couldn’t recall receiving it but cast a provisional ballot. A person who receives a mail-in ballot must bring it to a polling place to have it invalidated before voting in person.

“I voted for Mr. Trump,” he testified without being asked as a group of Walsh’s supporters broke out in loud applause.

Gene Molino, the elections board’s lawyer, told Wagner he didn’t have to identify his voting preferences.

Election rules allow casting a provisional ballot when a person's eligibility to vote is in doubt. Election boards determine eligibility during official counts later.

That Wagner should have signed the outer envelope twice wasn’t in dispute, but Wagner said he didn’t remember signing the envelope even once. A completed ballot is put into a secret envelope that then goes into the outer envelope the voters signs and dates.

Elections officials testified the board accepts provisional ballots signed only once because often judges of elections fail to remind voters to sign twice.

“I can’t recall not accepting (a provisional ballot with) one signature,” elections board chairwoman Denise Williams testified.

Write-in ballots

In the write-in ballots appeal, the issue centers on whether a write-in vote for a candidate should count if the candidate’s name already appears on the ballot.

Vance said Cabell found at least five variations of his name during his 2022 election that were listed as examples in his written appeal. But he and elections officials said they don’t know who received any of the 22 write-in votes.

The board rejected counting them last week because there were too few to defeat either candidate and because board members knew they couldn’t count for Walsh or Cabell because both are on the ballot.

Vance argued a 2004 state Supreme Court ruling requires counting write-in votes for a candidate even when a candidate’s name appears on the ballot.

Molino did not dispute the ruling, but said voting regulations developed after that clearly forbid counting a write-in vote for a candidate already on the ballot.

Judge Tina Polachek Gartley, noting Molino was making arguments he never put in writing, gave him until Monday at noon to do that. She said Walsh and Vance have until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to respond in writing to Molino’s written brief.

Borys joins WVIA News from The Scranton Times-Tribune, where he served as an investigative reporter and covered a wide range of political stories. His work has been recognized with numerous national and state journalism awards from the Inland Press Association, Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors, Society of Professional Journalists and Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.

You can email Borys at boryskrawczeniuk@wvia.org