Top Pennsylvania election official to resign after agency mishandled requirement for constitutional amendment

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s top election official will resign after it was found that the Department of State failed to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend retroactively the timeline for victims to file civil actions against their abusers.

Kathy Boockvar, secretary of the commonwealth, will resign from the position on Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office announced Monday. Boockvar served in the department for three years.

The proposed amendment, which is in response to the child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, first passed the Legislature as House Bill 963 in November 2019. The Department of State was constitutionally required to advertise the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment in two newspapers in every county, in each of the three months before the next general election when members of the General Assembly are elected.

That advertising did not occur before the 2020 general election.

“I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished for the people of Pennsylvania,” Boockvar said. “I’ve always believed that accountability and leadership must be a cornerstone of public service. While I only became aware of the mistake last week and immediately took steps to alert the administration to the error, I accept responsibility on behalf of the department.”

Because of the error, the process to amend the constitution must now start from the beginning unless the General Assembly pursues this initiative through the bill process, according to a news release.

“This change at the Department of State has nothing to do with the administration of the 2020 election, which was fair and accurate,” Wolf said. “The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you. I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.

The department is also immediately instituting new controls, including additional tracking and notifications of constitutional amendments, to ensure similar failings do not occur in the future, the news release stated. The governor has asked the Pennsylvania Office of State Inspector General to review the situation and make additional recommendations to improve the department’s process for handling constitutional amendments.

Proposed constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive sessions of the state Legislature, after which the proposal is put to the voters in a statewide referendum. The General Assembly was set to begin the process for second passage of the amendment this week. In preparing for the potential passage, DOS staff noticed late last week that the amendment was not previously advertised.

The governor would commit to working with the General Assembly to reach a legislative resolution if the General Assembly wants to pursue a bill creating a civil “window” for victims to file child sexual abuse claims.

Last week, before this development, Channel 11′s Aaron Martin spoke to survivor Ryan O’Conner about what it’s been like waiting for his day in court, a day that’s now even further away.

“This past two-and-half years in a lot of regards, has forced us to live in the past. When you live with PTSD, you deal with the sleepless nights and you deal with the unwanted thoughts and intrusive thoughts. We didn’t ask for any of this,” said O’Conner.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the incident “shameful” and said “all options must be on the table to fix this immediately.”

The governor will appoint Veronica Degraffenreid to serve as acting secretary of the commonwealth. Degraffenreid was the department’s special adviser on election modernization. She has over 12 years of experience in election administration and was the former director of election operations for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.