HARRISBURG — Despite concerns over the coronavirus, a special election in Bucks County will go on as planned Tuesday, a top state House official has announced.
Both Gov. Tom Wolf and local officials had called for the special election in the 18th House District to be postponed, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the county rose to three. On Saturday, Wolf expanded a voluntary shutdown of nonessential businesses to the area.
“We are concerned with both being able to staff that election as well as people’s comfort with being able to come out and vote, given the situation and the social distancing recommendations," Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, chair of the Board of Bucks County Commissioners, said Saturday.
But in a statement, House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said the Bucks County special election as well as two others — one in Westmoreland County and the other in a district that includes parts of Butler and Mercer Counties — would go on as planned.
“The impact of the COVID-19 virus is being felt by all of us, and I applaud the statewide efforts to practice social distancing and increased disinfecting in public spaces,” Turzai said in a statement Saturday. "These same practices will be in place on election day, but they do not require the rescheduling of the special elections. When you consider that absentee ballots have already been applied for and returned, these elections are already underway.”
Turzai said he consulted with the House parliamentarian, who expressed concerns about “increased confusion for voters and disenfranchising absentee voters, including members of the military, who would have to reapply for absentee status.” The parliamentarian also said it’s unclear if Turzai has the authority to schedule a new election under these circumstances.
The race in Bucks County is a key one for Democrats hoping to flip the GOP-controlled House this fall. Republican K.C. Tomlinson and Democrat Harold Hayes are vying to replace Gene DiGirolamo, a moderate who resigned to become a county commissioner.
The elections in Western Pennsylvania were called to fill vacancies in the state House left by members who won judgeships.
While all voters are able to request a mail-in ballot for the April primary, that option was not available for these special elections. County officials said Friday they are planning to report to their assigned polling locations prepared with wipes and gloves.
“I’d like to say we could put everybody in a bubble and protect everybody, but I’m not sure that’s possible,” said Jeffrey Greenburg, the director of elections for Mercer County.
Counties will take special precautions due to the coronavirus, the elections officials said. These policies include asking voters in districts with paper ballots to bring their own pens, as well as providing poll workers with gloves and sanitizing wipes to clean the machines and scanners after use. Officials are also encouraging voters to follow the Department of Health’s guidelines like washing their hands after leaving polling locations.
Andy Harkulich, chair of the Mercer County Democrats, said Friday he thinks COVID-19 will affect turnout.
“I’m sure the numbers will be down,” he said. “What we’re going through, you can’t complain about. This thing that’s going on is pretty serious.”
In Westmoreland County, director of elections Beth Lechman said she expects turnout to drop by about 7% compared with previous special elections, down to around 10% total turnout.
But in Bucks County, chief clerk of elections Gail Humphrey said she is expecting higher turnout for a special election “because of the seat we’re replacing” and “because of what seems to be the changing political climate” in the area.
As of Friday morning, Humphrey said she had only discussed with state officials how the county can address safety concerns for the April 28 primary.
“We’re just trying to get through this special election,” Greenburg in Mercer County said. “Then, there’s a lot of big conversations occurring at the state level as we approach the presidential primary.”
Inquirer staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.