As Marlene and Richard Alpaugh walked through the doors of Bensalem High School to cast their vote in Bucks County’s special election for a state legislative seat Tuesday, they pushed aside their worries of the coronavirus and focused on their civic duty.
“This election is just too important not to vote,” said Marlene Alpaugh, 72, who has lived in Bensalem for 33 years.
“I can’t say it’s more important than the virus, but I really want to see a Democrat take the seat,” she added.
The Alpaughs were part of a steady stream of voters who flowed through the Bensalem polling place Tuesday, despite the fact that the coronavirus had prompted Gov. Tom Wolf to direct the closure of all nonessential businesses and public spaces.
Many who turned out were older voters, with some, like Richard Alpaugh, who is recovering from a stroke, using a cane. Older people are particularly at risk from the virus.
The uncertainty upended the race for the 18th state House District, which could help determine which party controls the lower chamber next year. Campaigns and outside groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the race. But the campaigns scaled back their get-out-the-vote operations as the public health crisis deepened. And it wasn’t clear the election would even be held until Monday evening, when a judge rejected county officials’ request to postpone it.
A Democratic operative who has worked in Pennsylvania politics for two decades said the campaign was his “weirdest experience” to date.
The election was held to fill a vacancy left by Republican Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, who resigned to become a Bucks County commissioner. Campaigning to replace him were Republican K.C. Tomlinson, who runs a funeral home and is the daughter of a state senator, and Democrat Harold Hayes, a union plumber.
The Pennsylvania GOP declared a victory for Tomlinson about 10 p.m., and said its candidates had also won in two other special elections for state House districts elsewhere in the state. Democrats didn’t dispute that, reiterating that the elections should have been postponed for public safety.
“It’s been brutal,” Hayes said earlier Tuesday of campaigning amid the pandemic.
His campaign ramped up safety precautions, he said, using special equipment, providing hand sanitizer and clean pens to voters. He emphasized that despite the worries, it was safe for people to vote.
“Precautions are in place,” he said. “And democracy continues.”
Both candidates are expected to run again in November to win a full term. But the winner of the special election will have the benefit of incumbency. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, and Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there in 2016. But Republicans outperformed Democrats in Bensalem in local elections last year.
In campaign ads, a GOP group tied Hayes to Philadelphia’s liberal district attorney, Larry Krasner, and warned he would bring “Philly’s radical policies to Bensalem." Democrats ran television ads portraying Tomlinson’s “sweet life” — riding a horse, growing up “rich to a powerful father,” and “living on a country club.”
Local officials said they were pleasantly surprised by turnout — though expectations were already low for a special election.
“Turnout is a lot better than I anticipated,” said Bensalem Township Council President Ed Kisselback, a Republican.
“We have consistently had two to three voters walking in,” said Kisselback, 71. “It’s been a constant flow.”
“Up until the last minute we were wondering if we would have to postpone,” Kisselback said. “Everything else is closed except for this.”
Wolf, a Democrat, had hoped to postpone the election but was rebuffed by state House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who has the authority to set special elections.
That led Bucks County officials to file an emergency petition seeking an injunction to halt the election over fears of the coronavirus. Bucks County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey G. Trauger denied that request, saying he had no legal authority to do so.
“I think the judge had an obligation to disclose that,” Bucks County Democratic Chairman John Cordisco said. “And then upon that knowledge, I think the parties would have a right to ask him to recuse himself, based upon that information.”
A message left with an assistant to Trauger was referred to Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Baldi. He said in an email that Trauger was assigned the emergency case five minutes before he heard it.
“There is nothing that I am aware of about the Petition that asserted or suggested the relief requested by the Bucks County Board of Elections was politically motivated or was based on one party receiving an advantage over another,” Baldi wrote.
Many voters interviewed Tuesday were happy that the election wasn’t postponed.
Peggy Thullen, 76, said she weighed her options before ultimately deciding to come.
“I hesitated all morning,” Thullen said. “But this only takes a few minutes, so I said why not?”
Walter Smith, 62, said: “I don’t think it needed to be postponed. But why hold it in a school?”
“They won’t let the kids come to school, but they’ll let all these potentially sick people come through here,” said Smith, a Democrat.
Those working at the polls took multiple precautions Tuesday, with volunteers wearing latex gloves, offering hand sanitizer, and wiping down voting stations.
Voters turned out, but numerous poll volunteers, who are frequently older residents, called out.
Joe Waters, 75, a Republican poll manager, said his grandchildren urged him not to volunteer.
“I’m in good health for an old man,” he joked.
“We need to come out and vote,” Waters added. “If you don’t vote, then don’t complain.”