'Tainted' Pa. Senate election is voided

February 20, 1994|By New York Times News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Saying Philadelphia's election system had collapsed under "a massive scheme" by a Democratic candidate to steal a state Senate election in November, a federal judge took the rare step of invalidating the election and ordered the seat filled by the Republican candidate.

In making such a sweeping move, Judge Clarence C. Newcomer of U.S. District Court in Philadelphia did for the Republicans what the election had not: enabled them to regain control of the state Senate, which they lost two years ago.

Judge Newcomer ruled Friday that the Democratic candidate, William G. Stinson, had stolen the election from Bruce S. Marks in North Philadelphia's 2nd Senatorial District through an elaborate fraud in which hundreds of residents were encouraged to vote by absentee ballot even though they had no legal reason -- such as a physical disability or a scheduled trip outside the city -- to do so.

In many instances, according to Republicans who testified at a four-day hearing last week, Democratic campaign workers forged the names of people on dozens of absentee ballots who were living in Puerto Rico, serving time in prison or, in at least one case, had been dead for some time.

"Substantial evidence was presented establishing massive absentee ballot fraud, deception, intimidation, harassment and forgery," Judge Newcomer wrote in a decision made public Friday.

The district, which includes white, black and Hispanic neighborhoods, is overwhelmingly Democratic by registration. Nonetheless, campaign workers testified that widespread voter apathy had prompted them to promote a "new way to vote" to ensure a victory.

At issue is whether the door-to-door solicitation of votes that the Democrats conducted is permissible under the state election code, which says the Philadelphia County Board of Elections "shall deliver or mail" the ballots to a voter.

The city, whose lawyers represented the Board of Elections, contended that the statute was open to broad interpretation, but throughout the hearing Judge Newcomer made it clear that he believed otherwise.

But the two Democrats on the three-member Board of Elections, elected body, testified that they were aware of the voter fraud, had intentionally failed to enforce the election law, and had later tried to conceal their activities by hurriedly certifying the Democratic candidate as the winner.

Judge Newcomer ordered that Mr. Stinson, a former assistant deputy mayor of Philadelphia, be removed from his state Senate office and that Mr. Marks, a lawyer and former aide to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, be certified the winner within 72 hours.

"This is extraordinary relief," Judge Newcomer wrote. "However, it is appropriate because extraordinary conduct by the Stinson campaign and the board tainted the entirety of the absentee ballots."

But the two parties agreed that Mr. Marks would not try to enforce the order until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia reviewed an appeal that Mr. Stinson said he would file Tuesday.

The dispute involves a special election in November to fill a state Senate seat made vacant by a Democratic senator's death.

The election was crucial because the party that won the seat also won control of the 50-member state Senate.

The judge decided to hear the case, brought by the Pennsylvania Republican Party, after state election officials and state courts rejected the Republicans' claims.

The Republicans have an appeal now before the state's highest court. They also went to federal court on the grounds that there were violations of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.

The Democrats, fearing that the court would rule against them, suddenly adjourned the state Senate on Monday, two days ahead of schedule. But when the Senate reconvenes next month, barring any successful Democratic appeal, Republicans will control the Senate by outnumbering Democrats by 26-24.

Republican leaders minimized the effect of Friday's ruling, saying they were eager to work with Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat.

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