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2020 News

Bucks County Denied Injunction to Halt Bensalem Special Election

March 16, 2020

Contact: Larry R. King, 215.348.6413, lrking@buckscounty.org

Bucks County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey G. Trauger on Monday night denied an emergency petition filed by the county Board of Elections for an injunction to postpone Tuesday’s special election for Bensalem’s seat in the state House.

The county, joined by an elderly Bensalem poll worker who has multiple health issues, sought to put off the election until at least the April 28 countywide primary over concerns about coronavirus.

After taking testimony, hearing lawyers’ arguments and studying election law and legal precedent, Trauger ruled that he could find no legal authority empowering him to postpone a legislative election. Courtroom

The special election, held to fill the seat vacated by former 18th District State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, who is now a county commissioner, comprises 27 voting districts in Bensalem and close to 40,000 registered voters. 

Attorneys for the county cited difficulties in securing enough poll workers – many of whom are older and concerned about coronavirus – to staff the special election, and concerns that social distancing edicts announced by both Gov. Wolf and President Trump would be impossible to maintain at polling places.

“It does concern me somewhat that a symptomatic person determined to vote could show up” at the election, testified Bucks County Department of Health Director Dr. David Damsker, who said it would be “a little bit of a logistical nightmare” to keep people sufficiently separated at a crowded polling place.

Also testifying by phone was Elly McNelis, a Bensalem resident in her early 70s who said she had worked the polls for 30 years. She said she suffers from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and has a history of stroke.

McNelis said her polling place, Valley Elementary School, is usually well-populated with older voters from a nearby nursing home and retirement home. “That’s a scary thought,” she said, saying she feared for their safety and her own.

“We’re not going to be six feet apart,” McNelis said. “That’s not going to happen.”

Lawyers for Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, who has refused repeated requests to postpone the election, and the Bucks County Republican Committee argued that Trauger had no authority to decide the case, saying Commonwealth Court was the proper venue for such matters.

“This is really late in the game” to be trying to halt the special election, said attorney Joseph A. Cullen Jr., vice chairman of the Bucks County Republican Committee. “I don’t know how you put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Trauger questioned whether there was any precedent for a judge in Pennsylvania to put off an election, and spent an hour scrutinizing case law cited by both sides before announcing his decision.

In addition to finding no legal authority for granting the petition, Trauger’s order noted that Bucks County and Bensalem “have prepared diligently for said Special Election and have undertaken appropriate public health and safety precautions for all poll workers and voters who may appear tomorrow." Trauger

Trauger ordered the Board of Elections to “continue all necessary safety measures,” including use of hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes, rubber gloves, masks and signs reminding voters to maintain “any recommended and appropriate social distancing.” He said that any voters who have health concerns can pursue alternative emergency measures to vote without going to the polls.

Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, chair of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners and a member of the elections board, lambasted Trauger’s order as a “terrible decision.”

Marseglia said the injunction request was filed late “because the situation changes every hour. This judge was irresponsible and in violation of an order of the President of the United States, the Governor of Pennsylvania, and the Bucks County Commissioners.”

In Bucks County, all schools are closed for two weeks, and all dine-in restaurants and non-essential businesses have been ordered to close by Wolf. Trump, meanwhile recommended Monday that all people avoid gathering involving more than 10 people at a time.

“It doesn’t make much sense for us to ask residents to practice social distancing and to stay home from work, but then also encourage them to go out to vote in the middle of a public health crisis. This is no time to play games with people’s lives,” Marseglia said at the time the petition was filed.

Attorneys for the county did not immediately seek an appeal of Trauger’s order, saying they will continue to consider their appellate options.