OP-ED: Cut losses with 'grossly unqualified' York County elections director, reopen hiring process

Joseph N. Gothie
Manchester Township
Newly hired Elections Director Steve Ulrich at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Below is a letter for the York County Commissioners regarding the hiring of Steve Ulrich as director of Elections and Voter Registration.

Dear York County Commissioners:

The singular purpose of government in a democratic society is to provide free, fair and efficient elections. Every other purpose of government — public safety, general welfare, health — is secondary to the mandate to conduct elections that allow the will of the voters to manifest itself through officials elected in a trustworthy process.

Regardless of any other thing each of you does in the next four years, securing the integrity of York County elections is your primary job. If the public does not trust elections, they do not vote, and our government loses its legitimacy.

Each of you is familiar with me, but for the record, I am deeply involved in elections in York County. I have a nearly perfect voting record going back decades. I’ve litigated more election law cases in the last 10 years than any other lawyer in York County. I’ve done more campaign finance work than any other lawyer in York County for at least the last 10 years. I’ve worked on countless campaigns for municipal and county elections as well as state and federal elections. I am an elected official — a school director for Central York. I am a Republican State Committee member, an elected Republican Committeeman for Manchester Township 6, and I serve on the executive committee for the York County Republican Committee.

I have extensive qualifications and experience that qualifies me to speak on election matters in York County.

From left, Richard Isaac, of Peach Bottom Township, takes a photo of attorney Joe Gothie, of Manchester Township, as he shakes hands with Congressman Lou Barletta (R-PA), the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, during a meet and greet lunch with area residents at Round the Clock Diner in Manchester Township, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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For the foregoing reasons, I ask you to consider what I can offer from my experience and insight as you make decisions on election matters in York County. Specifically, I write to each of you to share my concerns about the hiring of Steve Ulrich to run the elections office in York County.

Simply put: He is grossly unqualified to be the director of elections for York County.

Retaining Ulrich in this role is election malpractice. It is a potential catastrophe in the making. His hiring and retention threaten to do grievous harm to the public’s perception of the integrity of our election this fall and well into the future as echoes of a poorly run election would ring through the hills and valleys of York County for years.

Due to the role of York County in a statewide election where Pennsylvania will surely be decided by a razor-thin margin and again be a swing state, it is a real possibility that misfeasance here could affect the presidential election. We could be 2020’s version of Palm Beach County in 2000.

The stakes could not be higher.

York County is not Fulton County with 15,000 souls and 10,000 voters. A neophyte has no business getting on-the-job training here. York is a major county with over 425,000 citizens and over 300,000 voters. There are 159 polling places spread over a very large area. Running a countywide election is challenging even for an experienced person, as shown by the spotty history of recent countywide elections here.

Each of you recently passed through the gauntlet of a countywide election, including a hotly contested primary. You had ringside seats for the difficulties with the 2019 general election. These ranged from the minor, but embarrassing (the wrong paper making ballots difficult to process) to the serious (lines leading to voters leaving, poor screening and non-standard ballot handling at some polls that compromised the secrecy of some ballots). These occurred with experienced leadership.

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Going back to 2017, York County’s general election was also troubled by improper programming of voting machines that allowed two votes to be cast for cross-filed candidates. This occurred with experienced leadership.

Again, running a countywide election in York County is challenging under the best of circumstances with experienced staff and in low turnout years. The general election in 2020 is likely to result in the highest turnout for York County in modern history. 

It is the Super Bowl, and we are apparently on course to start the game with a practice squad quarterback. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

The lame duck commissioners sorted through a thin pool of applicants and hired Ulrich. He had never even looked at the Elections Code until a few weeks ago. I seriously question his ability to successfully undertake the process of running our 2020 election.

I’m certain Ulrich is a fine human being. He is likely kinder than I am and certainly more beloved by those who know him. I’ve been very publicly and sharply critical of his hire.

Please understand that my critiques are not about his humanity or anything other than his lack of qualifications for this job. The unfortunate truth, however, is that he is grossly unqualified to jump into the breach to solve the problems staring us in the face in 2020.

What is a qualified candidate? An elections director for York County must be qualified in two areas beyond basic office skills, organizational skills and employability:

1. The legal subject matter of elections, including at a minimum ballot access, voting eligibility, voting procedure, maintenance of voting records, and campaign finance law.

2. The elections director must be actually impartial. In addition he must perceived by the public as being impartial. Nikki Suchanic, for instance, was a registered Democrat. We occasionally had differences on technical matters, but as a highly partisan Republican, I never once perceived her as anything other than a perfectly impartial and non-partisan elections director who invariably acted in good faith.

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There likely is no “perfect” candidate for both requirements — experienced candidates likely were partisans at some point. An inexperienced candidate might have no perceived bias but would likely not have a strong command of the technical issues. Hiring likely involves trading off some of one to get the other.

Somehow, the outgoing commissioners managed to hire someone who fails spectacularly on both counts. 

Why is Steve Ulrich unqualified?

First, he admitted publicly that he has no idea what he is doing. He admits he has zero command of the subject matter. Not poor — zero. By itself, this should be disqualifying. Astonishingly, he was still hired.

None of you would hire someone to operate on your heart if the person just hopped off a bar stool and had no training in cardiac surgery. Julie Wheeler would not have hired someone off the street at GE to run a mission-critical business unit who had no managerial experience. Ron Smith would not have hired someone to be a police officer who had never been trained or certified or been through psychological testing. Each is a fair analogy for Ulrich’s hire.

Second, Ulrich’s social media history has now come to light, raising serious and legitimate questions about his actual ability to be impartial. Even if he somehow can claim he can be impartial, he will never be perceived as being impartial by the electorate, given the extensive publication of his social media history. The public’s trust in him has been destroyed.

A February Facebook post from Steve Ulrich, the county's new director of its Office of Elections and Voter Registration.

His public social media presence offers or shares content that openly mocks or savagely criticizes local Republican elected officials, the president of the United States, and gun owners. In addition, his spouse, acting in response to legitimate criticisms offered about his hiring, posted on Facebook on Jan. 14, 2020, on the page of the York County Republican Party that the chairman of the local Republican party is “crooked.” Unknown is what Ulrich’s private social media use would disclose about his political bias. My suspicions are that it is even more egregious.

The county elections director is like an elections umpire. Ulrich is like an umpire calling a game while wearing the uniform of one of the teams and heckling the opponent as he calls balls and strikes.

Given what has transpired, there is no chance that Republican voters in York County will perceive Ulrich as an impartial actor. It gives fodder to those who claim that elections are rigged or corrupt. The fact that he was hired with no obvious technical qualifications only amplifies these perceptions. I’ve seen and heard many forms of the comment recently asking: “Who did he know to get hired?” These perceptions will suppress turnout, which is damages the actual and perceived legitimacy of our county government.

It gets worse.

The attack on the confidence of the public as to the impartiality of elections is especially damaging this year due to technical changes to the voting process that will take place. Formerly, absentee ballots were distributed to precincts to be opened and counted at each poll on Election Day. Each poll would have poll workers and often poll watchers to certify independently that election procedures were followed.

The advent of “no excuse” mail-in voting this year changes all of that. There will be far more mailed ballots than we used to see as “absentee” ballots. Mailed ballots must be processed centrally at the county elections office. They may be processed for over a week after the election, so poll watchers cannot easily be present to independently confirm election procedures are followed. There will be fewer checks and balances in place.

As a result, there is far more opportunity for a partisan elections official running the county elections office to make mischief. The critical need to avoid even the appearance of impropriety under these new rules is self-evident.

In a nutshell, the public perception of Ulrich’s social media use will certainly cause voter suppression. Unfortunately, it is almost certainly impossible to un-ring the bell.

It is time to cut our losses. Reopen the hiring process. It is the only way forward. You will not be saddled with the choice of the outgoing commissioners. You can actively seek more and better candidates by casting your net wider. You can engage in a good faith review and exercise your judgment for the good of York County. I implore you to do this. 

To accomplish this, loudly and publicly seek applicants for the job. I promise that I will have at least five resumes of qualified people on your desks within two weeks. None will be mine. I don’t believe any of them are viewed as being ostentatiously or overtly partisan. They will certainly be less partisan than Ulrich and each will have more election experience that he has. I am certain you will have other applicants as well.

Thank you for your time and consideration.