This column previously appeared in Broad + Liberty.
Three weeks ago, the Delaware County Council enacted an ordinance altering the powers and duties of the county’s board of elections and registration commission. These changes to the administrative code follow years of contentious debate surrounding minority party representation in county government, as well the private funding of election administration from partisan non-governmental organizations.
With the changes, the all-Democrat council has granted itself the power to hand-pick the minority party member on the board of elections, undermining the ability of the out-of-power party to choose its own representation. The Board of Elections is a bipartisan body responsible for managing, overseeing, and facilitating elections in Delaware County. It is also the only governmental body in the county where minority party representation is guaranteed.
Previously, the administrative code stated that members of the board shall consist of two appointees representing the majority party, which the code defines as “the party with the largest total vote cast for the seat on council in the most recent municipal election”, and one appointee representing the minority party, or “the party with the second ranking total vote cast”. The minority party representative is chosen by the council majority from a list of three nominees submitted by the minority party chairperson.
Now, the council has granted itself the authority to reject the list of representatives from the minority party and appoint a representative of their choosing. As it stands, the new law, Ordinance 2023-1, does not provide any examples of necessary grounds for the rejection of such a list.
Additionally, if the list is rejected, the minority party has ten days to compile and submit a new list or else the council may appoint any registered member of the minority party they choose. In the event that there is a vacancy on the board and a list is not received from the minority party chairperson within thirty days, the council may now also appoint a minority representative of their choosing.
When asked by Broad + Liberty to provide justification for this new ordinance, a spokesperson for the council said, “The Delaware County Charter gives the County council unfettered discretion over who to select as the minority party member of the election board,” (emphasis added).
Republican election lawyer James Fitzpatrick from Zimolong Law in Villanova, however, disagrees with the council’s assertion. According to Fitzpatrick, this move by the council is in direct violation of Pennsylvania state election laws.
“The recent amendment to the process by which the Delaware County Council appoints minority representation to their election board is illegal. 25 Pa. § 2641 states that the county council shall appoint minority representation on the election board from a list submitted by the county chairman of the minority party,” Fitzpatrick said. “The language in Ordinance 2023-1 gives the council authority to reject the list, in violation of Pennsylvania law, and appoint any member of the minority party.”
In addition to Fitzpatrick’s concerns, Delaware County Republican Party Chairman Frank Agovino expressed outrage.
“This blatant power grab by Delaware County Democrats is disgraceful,” Agovnio said. “For a party that loves to wrap themselves in the cloak of democracy, de facto veto power over minority party participation in election administration is arguably the most anti-democratic thing they could do.”
Agovino went on to say, “the language used in the new administrative code is purposefully vague. In its present form, Christine Reuther could appoint herself minority representative just by changing her party registration. What do you think her response would be if the shoe was on the other foot?”
Interestingly, Councilwoman Christine Reuther, a Democrat who voted to approve the change, openly opposed what she described as a “one-party system” in 2015 in an unsuccessful bid for county council in then Republican-controlled Delaware County. Ruether publicly lamented that Delaware County is the only county in the state “not obligated to have minority representation.”
Reuther is hardly the only county Democrat to have campaigned on the issue of minority party representation when Republicans controlled the county. Indeed, the decision to support this amendment signals a noteworthy change in Democrats’ views on minority party representation now that they are not the minority party.
In 2014, former Democratic candidate for council and county Democratic Committee Chairman David Landau described a minority party voice as “much-needed” in Delaware County.
Twice over the course of this past week, Broad + Liberty reached out for comment from the League of Women Voters of Delaware County, an organization with a longstanding history of advocating for increased voter participation and the preservation of democratic processes. The league did not respond to our inquiry.
Given that the ordinance was passed quickly and with limited public debate, it is difficult to speculate as to why any of the above changes to the administrative code were implemented. However, the nature of these changes and the discreet way by which they were pushed through is likely to be concerning to voters frustrated by a perceived lack of transparency in election-related processes and the facilitation of mail-in voting.
Delaware County has been fraught with politicized election issues in recent years. Officials knowingly accepted election grants from left-wing non-profit groups funded by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and run by former Obama administration aides. Additionally, county officials admitted to sending hundreds of mail-in ballots to the wrong voters, and a 2021 lawsuit alleges election officials destroyed election materials in the 2020 general election.
All of these issues together comprise the backdrop for these recent changes to the county administrative code, which begs the question: why did County Council believe it necessary to inexplicably modify pre-existing code language and implement heavy-handed, possibly illegal leverage over minority party election board nominees?
Democrats and their progressive allies in the county would demand an answer — if they were still in the minority, that is.