READING, Pa. – The Berks County commissioners on Thursday defended their positions on the need for election reform in Pennsylvania.
Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach took the lead in the defense, as he also penned an op-ed piece on the topic, which appeared in Thursday's Reading Eagle newspaper.
"I've heard from some people that somehow think this is promoting the idea that there was massive voter fraud," Leinbach said. "It's not about voter fraud, but about the issue of election integrity and there is a big difference."
Leinbach explained that election reform is the number one priority in 2021 for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP).
"We (CCAP) have no political action committees. We do not endorse candidates," Leinbach stated. "We are about representing 67 counties. The mail-in ballot created by Act 77 (the mail-in voting law of 2019) appears to be in opposition to the constitution of Pennsylvania."
Leinbach said that. in his opinion and the opinion of some constitutional lawyers, state lawmakers circumvented the constitution, which he said has very specific restrictions on absentee voting.
"Not only was there not a constitutional amendment, but county leaders were not part of this legislation," he said.
Leinbach said that led to inconsistencies from county to county on how mail-in ballots were handled.
Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, a Democrat, said he is on CCAP's election reform committee.
"I echo the comments that everyone follows the same rules," Barnhart said. "Our platform is calling for an amendment to the registration deadline for new voters and to give counties relief from pre-canvassing (when the county may start to count mail-in ballots). The state sent us a hot mess when it came to Act 77."
CCAP's website states that its election reform priority is to give counties additional time to pre-canvass mail-in ballots and to move the deadline for mail-in ballot applications back to 15-days prior to an election.
Several county residents also criticized a Jan. 19 letter sent to the Republican-controlled state Legislature from Republican leaders from numerous counties asking for election reform.
Both Leinbach and Commissioner Michael S. Rivera signed the letter.
Spring Township resident Jess Royer criticized Leinbach and Rivera for the action.
"As a board, you often talk about bipartisanship and how well you work together," Royer said. "The drive to repeal and re-legislate the vote-by-mail process that was passed by a GOP Legislature is now being led by the GOP, after the system was used by more Pennsylvania Democrats than Republicans. Voting by mail is a step towards enabling as many people to vote as possible, and the effort to prevent people from using this mechanism is overwhelmingly Republican. It's hypocritical to suddenly sign on to this unfounded, misguided, dis-informational and partisan effort."
Wyomissing resident Jane Palmer said she was appalled by Leinbach's op-ed piece, saying it was "riddled with the same information about mail-in voting that the GOP Trump-loyalists wanted to use to overturn the Pennsylvania election results."
"You have signed onto a letter that repeats the same lies and insulation of fraud," Palmer said. "Your political party, under the leadership of Donald Trump, cultivated the mistrust that led to the violent insurrection of the Capitol. You are public servants and should be ashamed at using your platform for promoting the interest of your political party."
West Reading resident David Delnegro called on Leinbach and Rivera to moderate their stance regarding Act 77.
"The bill (law) clearly needs improvement, however, calling it unconstitutional in this atmosphere gives the appearance of election denial that is uncharacteristic of the professionalism I have come to expect," he said.
But several residents also supported the letter and the need for election reform.
Kutztown resident Rebecca Ezolt said November's presidential election was conducted in blatant disregard for the Pennsylvania constitution.
"It's a no-brainer for both sides of the aisle to investigate to the fullest extent," Ezolt said. "Constituents deserve answers."
Rivera defended the Jan. 19 letter, saying people's negative comments most likely meant they had not read the letter.
"Please don't go by what other people are posting on social media," Rivera said. "The letter states facts and is not partisan. This is about election integrity and election reform."
Rivera invited constituents to contact him by email so that he can forward them copies of the letter.
Leinbach said his position is non-partisan.
"My call is not about making it easier for Democrats, Republicans or independents," Leinbach said. "My call is for election reform that guarantees a vote that is cast according to the rules, counts. We have an obligation to make sure our voters can trust the system. They need to know what the rules are and that the rules are being evenly and fairly applied across the commonwealth."
Leinbach further explained why Republican leaders took it upon themselves to write the letter.
"The problems with Act 77 were not created by the Democratic leadership, but by the Republican leadership not working with the counties," Leinbach said. "Nowhere does it call for a repeal of mail-in ballots."
Barnhardt also noted that he believes that even with election reform, mail-in ballots are here to stay.