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State appeals court next step for tight Luzerne County House race

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

A state appeals court will decide whether to overturn three Luzerne County court rulings before the winner of a tight Republican state House nominating race is finally known. Three votes separate the candidates.

The Commonwealth Court gave case lawyers for Rep. Mike Cabell and challenger Jamie Walsh deadlines for filing legal paperwork that stretch as late as May 30. Cabell appealed county court rulings related to write-in and provisional ballots, and Walsh appealed one related to mail-in ballots.

The deadlines mean the race’s final outcome is at least another a week away. The candidates also can appeal the next rulings to the state Supreme Court.

Thursday marked a month since the April 23 primary election.

The Commonwealth Court will rule on whether two provisional, 22 write-in and six mail-in ballots should count. The candidates agree 12 other untallied provisional ballots should count, but state law prevents tabulating them until a decision on all the appeals.

People whose eligibility to vote is in doubt are allowed to cast provisional ballots until election officials determine eligibility.

Both men want to represent the 117th House District, which covers most of western and southern Luzerne County.

The winner will likely become the next representative on Dec. 1 because no Democratic candidate filed to run.

With 42 ballots still in dispute, uncounted or both, Walsh leads 4,728 to 4,725. The mail-in ballots are already part of the totals, the provisionals and write-ins are not. Four mail-ins were for Cabell, two for Walsh.

Shohin Vance, a lawyer for Cabell, appealed a three-county judge panel’s ruling blocking the counting of the write-in ballots and a separate ruling on two provisional ballots. The county Board of Elections and Registration rejected one and accepted the other. The judges upheld that decision.

Cabell, 39, of Butler Twp., wants a provisional vote cast by his first cousin counted and one cast by a voter who signed a ballot envelope once instead of twice thrown out. State law requires signing twice.

The county court ruled the county Board of Elections and Registration correctly refused to review write-in ballots for Cabell votes because Cabell’s name was already on the primary election ballot.

The court also ruled Cabell’s cousin’s vote shouldn’t count because he moved to McAdoo, outside the district, and could vote there.

The cousin, Shane O’Donnell, said he didn’t move from Butler Township, inside the district, until March 29. Cabell’s lawyer argued state law allowed O’Donnell to vote in his former district because he moved within 30 days of an election.

O’Donnell’s voter registration automatically switched to the McAdoo address after he re-registered his vehicle with the state Department of Transportation in December.

On the other provisional voter, the county court said signing once wasn’t fraud. The judges cited previous appeals court rulings that found election law should be construed liberally to allow voting when no fraud occurs. The voter testified a judge of elections instructed him on how to use a provisional ballot, though he didn’t remember signing at all.

Gregory Teufel, a lawyer for Walsh, appealed the elections board’s decision to count the mail-in ballots.

Walsh, 49, a gutter installation company owner from Ross Twp., contends the six voters didn’t fill in the “24” to complete the year on a pre-printed envelope that already showed the “20” part of 2024.

The county judges said that shouldn’t matter because the envelope votes was specifically produced for the 2024 primary.

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