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Bucks County elections board will count absentee ballots at its office

For three hours, the Bucks County Board of Elections listened to lawyers for Democrats, Republicans, and independents argue over the nuts and bolts of absentee ballot requests - deadlines, sloppy signatures, parents filling out forms for college-age children, and whether "housekeeping" and "busy" are valid reasons for not getting to the polls Tuesday.

Locked in a tight Eighth District battle are Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, left, and Republican Mike Fitzpatrick.
Locked in a tight Eighth District battle are Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, left, and Republican Mike Fitzpatrick.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

For three hours, the Bucks County Board of Elections listened to lawyers for Democrats, Republicans, and independents argue over the nuts and bolts of absentee ballot requests - deadlines, sloppy signatures, parents filling out forms for college-age children, and whether "housekeeping" and "busy" are valid reasons for not getting to the polls Tuesday.

None of which might have mattered much outside Bucks County, except that the backdrop is one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation.

In a 2-1 decision, the Elections Board agreed Friday to gather and count all absentee ballots at its office, instead of the customary practice of tallying those ballots at the myriad local voting divisions on Election Day. The ruling followed a Republican petition alleging foul play by Democrats.

The board also extended Friday's deadline for voters whose applications for absentee ballots had been rejected. They now have until 8 p.m. Tuesday, when the polls close, to reapply.

The Republicans alleged that Democrats sent out a mailing meant to intimidate some voters into applying for absentee ballots. The Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of demonizing a legal get-out-the-vote drive in an effort to disenfranchise voters. They claimed that of more than 600 absentee-ballot applications the county board rejected, more than 80 percent were from Democrats.

More than 12,000 applications were received and 8,000 absentee ballots cast as of Thursday, Bucks voting officials said.

Lawyer Carol A. Shelly, representing the Republicans, said she was satisfied with the decision.

She argued that counting the ballots in a central location would allow the board to preserve envelopes and any other evidence that might show whether applications were fraudulent.

"Once the ballot is counted, we will never know if it was fraudulent," she said.

Jordan B. Yeager, lawyer for the Democrats, said there was no provision in state law that provides for sequestration of absentee ballots. He also argued in favor of extending Friday's absentee filing deadline.

"We need to focus on making sure people who are qualified to vote can vote," Yeager said.

"We tried to be fair and use the law of common sense," Commissioner Charles H. Martin said.

Even a handful of votes could help swing the outcome of the Eighth District congressional race, where the Democratic incumbent, Patrick Murphy, is in a tight battle with his GOP challenger, former U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, whom he narrowly unseated in 2006.

Murphy released a statement after Friday's decision, saying the majority Republican board was making up election law as it went along in an attempt to tilt the election.