Pa. House control is in the balance Chester County officials will count absentee ballots in two critical races.

Posted: November 28, 2006

The long-awaited outcome of two undecided legislative races in Chester County could be known by the end of today, and the results could flip control of the state House from Republican to Democrat for the first time in 12 years.

At 10 this morning, Chester County officials plan to start tabulating hundreds of absentee ballots that mistakenly were not counted on election night.

If Democrats capture either the West Chester area 156th District seat, or the Exton-Malvern area 167th District, it would allow them to set the legislative agenda.

Democrats would control key House committee assignments, and that would allow them to push bills they favor that have been stalled or bottled-up for years. The Senate would remain controlled by the GOP.

As it stands now, in the 156th District Republican Shannon Royer leads Democrat Barbara McIlvaine Smith by 19 votes, according to unofficial returns. There are 266 uncounted absentee ballots in that district.

In the 167th District, the spread between Republican Duane Milne and Democrat Anne Crowley is 136 votes, and there are 464 uncounted absentee ballots.

Yesterday, Democrats claimed that the margin in the 156th race narrowed in their favor.

During a process closed to the media, but watched by lawyers and witnesses from both parties, county election workers transferred votes from military and civilian overseas absentee ballots onto paper forms that can be fed into a scanner.

Democratic attorney Clifford Levine said those ballots broke in favor of the Democrats, with the gap between Smith and Royer narrowing to 12 votes. "We have a race for control of the state House that is now 12 votes apart," said Levine.

In the 167th, Crowley is picking up 16 votes, he said.

GOP spokesman Al Bowman said the Democratic numbers appeared accurate.

Earlier in the day, Bowman downplayed the trend in the overseas ballots, saying it did not bode poorly for the outcome of the much larger number of domestic absentees.

"We feel pretty confident those will fall our way pretty significantly," Bowman said.

The absentee ballots were not counted election night because workers in several precincts shut down polling-place scanners without tabulating the absentee ballots. If they had turned the scanners back on, all the votes counted by the scanners from that day would have been lost.

Most county voters cast their votes by filling in ovals on a paper ballot that is read by a scanner.

Each precinct also has a touch-screen electronic machine for voters who are blind or have trouble using the paper ballots.

Meanwhile yesterday, the Democrats filed a pair of lawsuits in Chester County Court that lay the groundwork for contesting the outcome of the election in the 156th and the 167th districts in the event the outcome is not in their favor.

The Republicans did not file, but they will get another chance when the final count is officially certified by the county. There is a five-day window to challenge that number in court, said County spokesperson Evelyn Walker.

As an added complication, the county commissioners, sitting as the Board of Elections, have yet to rule on the 22 GOP challenges to absentee and provisional ballots. A decision on whether those ballots should be included in the count could occur tomorrow or Thursday. The challenges were made for a variety of reasons.

Out of the 29 precincts in the 156th, eight precincts had absentee ballots that were not counted. There were 210 domestic ballots and 56 overseas and military ballots.

In the 167th District, a total of 380 domestic absentees and 84 overseas and military ballots that were not counted from 10 of the district's 34 precincts.

Royer, 39, of West Goshen Township, has worked for House Speaker John Perzel (R., Phila.) and the house leadership for the last ten years.

Smith, 56, of West Chester, owns a water-treatment business with her husband, Robert. Both candidates have served stints on West Chester Borough Council.

They are seeking a seat left vacant by Elinor Z. Taylor (R., Chester) who is retiring after representing the West Chester area district for 30 years.

Even if the Democrats take over the House, that does not guarantee them smooth sailing, said political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. A single seat is a tenuous majority that could easily be upset by a controversial issue, he said.

"The Democrats are more difficult to hold together as a caucus - they are more diverse, and represent a wider ideological bridge," Madonna said. "If they win, it will be a genuine test of Democratic leadership in the House."

Contact Nancy Petersen at 610-701-7602 or npetersen@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis also contributed to this story.

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