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Ballot Box-ing 

Political squabbles extend right up to the polling-place door

Elections are rarely exercises in civility, and this year's Pittsburgh City Council races were no exception. Allegations of nasty, and in some cases illegal, behavior came in from several polling places -- notably in the hotly contested council races for districts 3 and 7.

In District 3, where challenger Bruce Kraus faced incumbent Jeff Koch, things started getting ugly days before the May 15 election. According to the Kraus camp, Koch supporters distributed fliers headlined "Support Catholic Values, Vote No To Bruce Kraus on May 15th" at local churches. The flyers, which were handed out as churchgoers were leaving Mass, included a bio of Kraus taken from the Web site of the Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C. group that supports gay and lesbian candidates.

Kraus is gay, and the Victory Fund biography notes, "If elected, Kraus would be the first openly LGBT person on the Pittsburgh City Council, and the first openly LGBT person elected in Western Pennsylvania." The flyer reprinted the biography, along with a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette clipping that identified the fund as one of Kraus' largest campaign donors. (The group gave Kraus $2,500.)

"This campaign unfortunately took a turn for the worse," Kraus says. "Koch made decisions about how he chose to run his campaign and is feeling the consequences."

For his part, Koch denies having known about the flyer in advance, though he says it "may have been somebody from my side who didn't tell me.

"All I got was a copy" of the flyer after it had been circulated, Koch says. He notes that the language comes from a Web site supporting Kraus. "It's his own words; it's not fiction being thrown at him."

There were also scattered reports of Election Day disputes in other districts, although it's difficult to say whether the confrontations were unusually serious ... or whether challengers were trying to score points by complaining about them.

In District 7, there were early morning complaints from challenger Patrick Dowd's camp that poll watchers -- who keep a lookout for misbehavior by the other side -- were being interfered with at Lawrenceville's St. Augustine's Parish.

Isobel Storch, attorney for the Dowd campaign, said poll watchers arrived at 6:30 a.m. to watch the set-up of voting machines, and to copy down machine identification numbers, in case of irregularities later on.

Shortly after 6:30 a.m., she says, she got a call from the poll watchers: They told her they'd been escorted out of the building by Tony Ceoffe, an ardent supporter of incumbent Leonard Bodack and the head of community-development group Lawrenceville United. Ceoffe, who is also a Democratic Party ward chair for the area, had then locked the door with himself inside.

Storch says the workers were eventually allowed in, but were blocked from copying numbers off the machines. The election judges at the polling place, she says, "appeared to be following [Ceoffe's] lead," in preventing them from doing so.

"He was blocking the access of our poll watchers, locking them out and he's still inside the building at the time," Storch says. "No one should have to endure any forms of intimidation just to exercise their rights to vote."

Ceoffe denies any intimidation took place. The Dowd camp's poll watchers "were completely in the way, and all I said was, 'Let the ladies get the stuff set up first,'" Ceoffe says. "The next thing I know, Isobel Storch is running around, making noise and calling the sheriff." Ceoffe also says Dowd's poll watchers got in the way at the table where election officials sit.

Noting "multiple complaints" about actions at the polling place, Judge Kathleen Durkin issued a hand-written court order requiring that election officials "not allow any person other than elections officials and watchers and persons who are actually voting or waiting to vote to be within the polling place." In addition, Durkin ordered that "no election official or watcher or other person shall electioneer within the polling place. It is further ordered that watchers shall limit their activities to watching and they shall be located behind the election board and not at the table [with election officials]."

Two constables -- one inside the building and one outside -- were charged with keeping the peace.

The Dowd campaign promptly issued a press release headlined "Court Order Served on 6th Ward Chair Tony Ceoffe and all staff at St. Augustine's polling site." The release claimed the court order was issued because of "acts of intimidation" against poll workers -- a charge Ceoffe calls "bullshit." The court order itself makes no mention of intimidation.

Mark Wolosik, who heads the county's Board of Elections, says he's not surprised some races were contentious: "These were pretty heated elections, were they not?" he says.

"These are local elections -- it's personal," Wolosik adds. "In a county our size, I am sure that in every election -- not to say we condone it or think it's right -- there are disputes. It's pretty typical."

But if aggressive tactics aren't unusual, what has changed is that groups like the League of Young Voters have become increasingly vocal about them.

"I certainly don't think it's the end of these shenanigans," says Nish Suvarnakar, a member of the League. But with increased scrutiny of such behavior, "If anyone wants to intimidate or affect the vote, it's going to have to happen in new ways. They're going to have to be more clever."

Chris Potter contributed reporting to this story.

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