Republicans in Pennsylvania went to court during the midterm campaign to try to get Democratic candidate Lindsey Williams kicked off the ballot over alleged residency deficiencies. A judge threw their challenge out, and Williams went on to upset her opponent, flipping a seat tucked inside Conor Lamb’s congressional district.
Now Senate Republicans, who still control the upper chamber despite losing five seats and the popular vote statewide, are trying to use the same residency argument to refuse seating the winner of the race.
Majority Leader Jake Corman, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, and the state GOP claim that by the time of the election, Williams was ineligible to run and therefore shouldn’t be able to take her seat in January.
Scarnati wrote Williams, 35, a letter in late November telling the incoming senator that she’d have to pay back her December salary if it was determined that she did “not meet the constitutional requirements.” The letter offered Williams, an attorney who’s worked with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers for four years, a hearing in front of Scarnati and a bipartisan commission.
A federal judge in October threw out the initial lawsuit brought by two voters, supported by the state GOP, claiming that Williams didn’t meet residency requirements on the grounds that the filers had missed the deadline to challenge her eligibility. He wrote in that opinion that the question was an “untimely” and “barely colorable claim.”
The race in itself was bizarre. Allegations surfaced that her opponent Jeremy Shaffer was behind campaign signs saying that Williams was a socialist, manufactured to look like her own. Shaffer says he did not create the signs, but his campaign manager is treasurer of the group that paid for them. And television ads he ran against Williams made the same claim.
If Senate Republicans declare Williams ineligible, the state would have to hold a special election to fill the seat.
“I’m not sure what’s gained by having to redo this election,” Williams’s lawyer Chuck Pascal told The Intercept. “To have a special election that will be costly to both the county and both parties, to have her run in a special where she will clearly be eligible. And deprive the people of the district of a senator for six months,” he explained. “I mean the last campaign cost almost a million dollars on each side. So, it would just seem to me to be a waste of money at this point.”
Williams is cooperating with GOP requests for documentation proving her residency, including but not limited to copies of her driver’s licenses, residential lease and purchase information, and tax documents for the past four years. They asked that Scarnati extend his original deadline for the documents to December 10.
“The constitution is not a guideline,” Corman spokesperson Jennifer Kocher said in response to criticism that a special election would be a waste of money. “If she can provide us with that information that will clear any of those questions up, then we’ll just move on,” she told The Intercept.
If Senate Republicans have more questions after they review those materials and decide to call a hearing, Pascal said he and his client would participate. “We don’t think it’s necessary,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, the governor is a Democrat, and Republicans still have an eight-seat margin in the chamber. Keeping Williams from taking office would likely do less to cement their legislative victories than it might to soften the blow from the party’s shrinking margins across the state.
People close to Democratic leadership say the party isn’t taking the GOP push seriously and that the chances they’ll succeed in keeping Williams from being sworn in in January are slim, since Williams stands a good chance of winning any special election they might force. But the effort reflects a similar pattern by Republicans in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where lawmakers are thwarting democracy and democratic norms by making last-minute attempts to restrict the power of incoming Democrats. One measure in Wisconsin would keep the incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers from changing the state’s voter ID law. The Onion joked that Wisconsin Republicans planned to disband the state rather than turn power over to Democrats.
In North Carolina, meanwhile, Republicans appear to have committed widespread voter fraud in a contested congressional race, with the election board refusing to certify the results.
Pennsylvania Republicans have refused to cooperate with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s attempts to staff the state redistricting commission, which is attempting to undo a Republican gerrymander that keeps the GOP in control of the state legislature despite badly losing the statewide vote.
Williams, a Duquesne law grad and former law clerk with the Pittsburgh United Steelworkers Union, was fired in late 2012 along with four other employees for trying to start a union at the National Whistleblower Center in Washington, D.C. The organization maintains that the dismissals were part of mandatory layoffs. Williams later worked for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the District of Columbia. In November 2014, she took a job with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and moved back to Pennsylvania around that time.
Scarnati did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.