Epic Battles No. 1: 1967 election was in dispute for 18 months
On Nov. 7, 1967, Northumberland County voters went to the polls to elect a board of commissioners.
They didn't find out who won until May 10, 1969 - 18 months later.
The election was that close and there was so much at stake for both political parties that it took a seemingly endless round of county recounts and hearings, legal appeals and, finally, a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to finally give Democrats the victory.
This particular election was so important - to both parties - because the Democrats hadn't controlled the commissioners office since 1931. For eight consecutive elections spanning 32 years, Republicans won majorities on the board.
Tight elections were getting to be a habit. The 1967 commissioners' election marked the third time in four years that absentee ballot counts ultimately determined the result of a high-profile race. On each occasion, the outcome was undetermined when candidates finally went to bed election night.
In the 1963 commissioners' race, it first appeared that Democrat George Perles, not incumbent Republican Fred Hoffman, was the winner. When the absentee ballots were counted, however, Hoffman was the winner.
The local race in 1964 for the state House of Representatives between Democrat Michael Stewart and Republican Paul G. Ruane wasn't decided (with Ruane the winner) until January 1965 when that year's absentee ballot hassle was resolved.
On election night 1967, Republican Lawton Shroyer and Democrat Dr. William Rumberger were obviously victorious; the absentee ballot count couldn't possibly affect their totals by sufficient numbers to deny them the election. The real issue was the battle for third place between Democrat Oscar Kehler and Republican Lawrence Williams. Kehler led by 365 votes, with about 1,100 absentee ballots to be processed.
With control of county government hanging in the balance, the Democratic and Republican parties left no legal means unturned to challenge procedures or ballot rulings that were detrimental to their respective causes. At one point, Democrats made a blanket challenge, later withdrawn, to all civilian absentee ballots.
What would normally have been inauguration day at the courthouse came and went without the third slot on the board being determined. Although Shroyer and Rumberger were the undisputed winners, they couldn't take office either because the entire commissioner board had to be certified.
There was a danger county government would grind to a halt. To prevent this, Northumberland County Judges Michael Kivko and Frank Moser took the drastic step of extending the terms of the outgoing board of commissioners, W. Fred Kohler, Fred Hoffman and Kehler. They were appointed to serve as an "interim board" until the ballot dispute was finally settled.
There was a chance the absentee ballot tabulations could also affect the county treasurer's race. So, Kohler, who had run for treasurer and was a probable, but not certain, winner, could not assume that office. The court's order allowed Williams to continue as treasurer. Although the election of District Attorney Vincent Makowski and Sheriff Philip A. Zerbe was not in doubt, they were not officially certified but were allowed to serve in these roles.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that the race for mayor of Shamokin was also very close, with Republican Amos Miller holding only a small lead over Democrat John Linnet. Certification of that race was also delayed for a time and, until it was resolved, Shroyer was appointed by city council to serve as acting mayor.
In 1968, the state Supreme Court appointed a panel of three outside judges to deal with the case. In May 1969, the high court upheld a ruling of the three-judge panel that 67 remaining disputed ballots in Shamokin and Coal Township belonged to the Democrats. The court's affirmation of this lower court ruling clinched the election for the Democrats.
The three-judge panel quickly finalized certifications, and within three days, oaths of office were finally administered to county officials who were elected 18 months earlier.