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Lancaster County Commissioner Ray D'Agostino, left, listens to comments from fellow Republican Commissioner Josh Parsons during a county elections board meeting Monday, May 16, 2022.

Elections, abortions, democracy. National topics that are dominating cable news networks and punditry about the 2022 general election took over a Tuesday meeting of the Lancaster County board of commissioners.

Several residents were critical of the board’s two Republicans, citing the officials’ rhetoric about the commonwealth’s election laws, their threats to cut ties to nonprofits that engage in political advocacy, and comments last week warning local hospitals against becoming an urgent care partner of the newly opened Planned Parenthood clinic.

The discussion began when an organizer from the local progressive political group Lancaster Stands Up asked the commissioners if they recognized President Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. D’Agostino said Biden was the president; as to whether he was elected to that office, he said: “Obviously, if he’s president, that’s how he became president.”

Democratic Commissioner John Trescot said Biden was elected in a free and fair election in 2020. Republican Commissioner Josh Parsons did not address the question and responded by repeatedly accusing Lancaster Stands Up of condoning violence.

In August, a Lancaster Stands Up spokesperson, Suzy Wurtz, said the group condemns political violence of any kind. She stopped short of disavowing a message written on a poster presented to county commissioners in May that referred to the 1917 Russian Revolution and said the commissioners should “watch your back.”

Another attendee on Tuesday pleaded with commissioners to stand behind the election system so misunderstandings and mistrust about it don’t proliferate and threaten the democratic system of the U.S.

Parsons said he agrees there are concerns about where the nation is headed, but: “I think we disagree probably on the reasons, and I don’t think it's inappropriate to discuss the reasons that people are suspicious about elections, I think transparency is appropriate.”

D’Agostino and Parsons have repeatedly argued that some of the state’s voting laws and court rulings about them have led to administrative differences between counties – in other words, the election in Lancaster County is run different from other counties, creating an unfair playing field.

They also have said the 2019 mail-in ballot law results in voters unwittingly breaking the law.

One theoretical example, Parsons said Tuesday, was someone filling out a mail-in ballot application for a different voter, or dropping off a filled-in ballot belonging to another voter without the voter’s consent. It is illegal under Pennsylvania law to fill out or handle someone else’s mail-in ballot without a signed declaration stating why it was necessary.

But Parsons acknowledged Tuesday committing widespread fraud this way would be difficult, since individual voters have to request their own mail-in ballot and have it sent to them at an address that matches their voter registration.

As part of a board of elections meeting on Tuesday, Lancaster County’s chief of elections, Christa Miller, presented on various efforts her department is taking to fulfill an “election integrity compliance” report. The requirement was created by new changes to Pennsylvania’s election code passed earlier this year. Miller documented how her staff updates the voting rolls to remove deceased or inactive voters, how her office secures ballots to ensure they are not tampered with after they are returned by mail, and other measures.

Abortion issue

Two other county residents at the meeting voiced support for Planned Parenthood and its newly opened location in Lancaster city. After it became clear the clinic would provide medicine-based abortions, both Republican commissioners posted on social media that they would “reevaluate” relationships with local hospitals that refer patients to the clinic.

Parsons responded to the comments by saying that abortions are not health care. “Nobody’s going to have any objections to any organization that wants to provide health care. The objection is to organizations providing abortions,” he said.

Trescot said hospitals and nonprofits that don’t meet some individual’s religious or cultural beliefs in public office shouldn’t be punished for that. “I find that (to be) a very scary kind of government,” he said.

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