As York County officials investigate primary woes, Republicans renew calls for elections director's removal

Matt Enright
York Dispatch
York County Board of Elections director Steve Ulrich says that 77% of registered county voters took part in the 2020 election, Wednesday, November 18, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

The head of the York County GOP is again calling for the removal of county elections director Steve Ulrich, this time over the troubled May 18 primary.

Jeff Piccola, chair of the county Republican Committee, first asked the county commissioners to fire Ulrich in January 2020 shortly after he was hired, asserting that Ulrich had a liberal bias and lacked election experience.

He renewed that call this week, after local officials complained at a recent county commissioners meeting about the primary election and President Commissioner Julie Wheeler pledged to investigate what went wrong. That pledge was reiterated at Monday's certification of the primary election vote.

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On Election Day, York County received complaints that some polling places had run out of Republican ballots. During the public comment period of the June 2 Board of Commissioners meeting, state constable John Dentler spoke about the issues at a Warrington Township polling location.

"The people working in this township did not believe it was an oversight," he told the board. "They believe it was a direct attack on rural Republican predominantly white voters in Pennsylvania and York County, which also happened all over the state, so the question is was this a collaborated event?" 

Piccola posted a statement to the York County GOP website in May, after the election, claiming the lack of Republican ballots was "real voter suppression, and it was suppression of Republican voters on a scale I have never witnessed."

In a phone interview Tuesday, Piccola said nothing had changed and that Ulrich should be fired.

"All we want are fair, straightforward elections run by competent people, and elections that voters in York County can have confidence in," he said.

Wheeler said she would not comment on personnel decisions.

Attempts to reach Ulrich were directed to Wheeler.

Ulrich's hiring sparked controversy in 2019. He had no previous experience running elections, instead working for more than 25 years as the director of an NCAA Division 3 conference. He also worked in sports communications roles for Ivy League schools' sports departments.

At the time of his hiring, Ulrich was also criticized for perceived bias because of posts he made that criticized former President Donald Trump and supported Democratic policies.

In an interview Monday, chair of the Democratic Party of York County Chad Baker said he wasn't willing to go as far as the GOP. 

"I frequently say, professionally and personally, we've got to let things run basically three cycles. Review, repair and move on, and I don't know that either the director or that office in general have had that opportunity," he said. 

Baker highlighted that since Ulrich took office, things have not been easy. First was a special election held shortly after Ulrich took office; then COVID-19 made it difficult to figure out how to vote in person. Ulrich also had to deal with the expansion of mail-in balloting.

"There have been some missteps along the way, but I think that that's the process for any new administration or any new person in that position," Baker said.

Unlike the party across the aisle, Baker said he hasn't seen any partisanship from Ulrich in his time as elections director. He said that the experience hasn't been different from previous administrations.

Baker said Ulrich should retain his position.

"I do feel that the board of elections in York County is woefully understaffed, and I feel like if the county administrators themselves would look at investing more into the board of elections you'd see less of these hiccups along the way," he said.

"In that regard, I think he should be given the opportunity to correct some of these errors along the way, and if that means advocating for more resources for that office, I think absolutely that should be the case as well."