By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Election observers are expected to help monitor polling sites on Election Day.
They intend to ensure voters are not obstructed and ballots are secure.
And so are the constables.
For decades, Pennsylvania counties have paid constables to keep the peace at polling places on Election Day.
But county and state officials are questioning that expense and may require having constables at polling sites an option, rather than a requirement. And with volunteers willing to help for free, those officials may have a good argument.
Constables, who run in political parties, are sworn peace officers with certain powers to arrest and are required to act as security at polling places. But many counties do not have enough constables for every precinct. In that event, constables can appoint deputies to fulfill the role, or the polling place can go without a constable.
In Pennsylvania, volunteer poll watchers are expected to keep an eye out for any voter fraud, intimidation or disenfranchisement and make sure voters are educated about the state’s voter ID law. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a United Nations-affiliated group, also will monitor polls.
But all those free pairs of eyes were not enough for one county. Joyce McKinley, director of elections in Centre County, said the county was considering hiring extra constables, if the state’s voter ID law was in play due to controversy surrounding the law.
But those plans were abandoned, when the Commonwealth Court suspended the enactment of the voter ID law for this election.
This security comes at a cost which for some counties is tens of thousands of dollars a year for an average, uneventful election.
Instead of paying constables to be on election duty, counties should look to the security that is available. Doug Hill, executive director of the county government advocacy organization County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said modern polling places, like those at schools, have their own security like guards and restricted entrances, lessening the need for constables.
“The counties can come in and take a look at each of the polling places. They know them very well. They know what the security risks might be typically so they can make an appropriate determination,” Hill said.
If constables were an option, counties also could rely on local law enforcement, Hill said.
The state’s Local Government Commission released an Oct. 9 report titled “Study of Statutory Mandates Places on Counties and Municipalities” that shows the state laws counties and local governments consider most burdensome. Among its recommendations was making constables optional for counties on Election Day.
The study found that 86 percent of counties said constable fees were “very” or “moderately” burdensome, when considering all fees paid to constables.
By law, counties pay constables the same rate as polling place clerks and inspectors. That could be anywhere from $70 to $195 a day.
The use and cost of constables for primary and general elections runs the gamut, according to CCAP, depending on the county’s population:
- Allegheny County employs around 1,000, for a cost of around $105,000 per election or $210,000 per year.
- Clinton County has two constables per election, costing around $580 a year.
- Montgomery County spends up to $63,000 a year for constables at up to 350 precincts.
- Lancaster County does not have a constable in every ward, so its budget is $12,000 a year.
Thomas Impink, president of the Pennsylvania State Constables Association, declined to comment, calling the situation “political.”
A bill to make constables optional on Election Day surfaced in the most recent legislative session, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango, but stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee. White is not seeking re-election.