Pa. re­jects 372,000 ap­pli­ca­tions for mail- in bal­lots

Most were du­pli­cates, but vot­ers still con­fused

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Jonathan Lai

Penn­syl­va­nia has re­jected 372,000 re­quests for mail bal­lots, strain­ing elec­tion of­fices and be­wil­der­ing vot­ers in one of the most hotly con­tested bat­tle­grounds in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

More than 90% of those ap­pli­ca­tions, or about 336,000, were de­nied as du­pli­cates, pri­mar­ily be­cause peo­ple who had re­quested mail bal­lots for the state’s June 2 pri­mary did not re­al­ize they had checked a box to be sent bal­lots for the gen­eral elec­tion, too.

Vot­ers have also been baf­fled by un­clear or in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion on the state’s bal­lot- track­ing web­site and by a wave of mail bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions from po­lit­i­cal par­ties and getout­the- vote groups. County of­fices across the state have been forced to hire tem­po­rary staff and work seven days a week to cope with the con­fu­sion.

“The vol­ume of calls we have been get­ting has been over­whelm­ing,” said Mary­beth Kuznik, elec­tions di­rec­tor in Arm­strong County. It has been pre­vent­ing her of­fice from work­ing on any­thing else: “It has been al­most like a de­nial- of- ser­vice at­tack at times be­cause it seemed that some­times all I could get done was an­swer the phone.”

Though it may deter some peo­ple from vot­ing, the mass re­jec­tion of bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions is un­likely to have a big ef­fect on turnout. Vot­ers who sub­mit­ted du­pli­cate ap­pli­ca­tions should even­tu­ally re­ceive a bal­lot. Those who don’t can still vote at the polls on Elec­tion Day.

Over­all, one out of ev­ery five re­quests for mail bal­lots is be­ing re­jected in Penn­syl­va­nia. An es­ti­mated 208,000 Penn­syl­va­nia vot­ers sent in the spurned re­quests, some sub­mit­ting them mul­ti­ple times. Al­though the state’s email re­ject­ing the re­quests de­scribes them as du­pli­cates, it doesn’t ex­plain why, prompt­ing some peo­ple to reap­ply. ProPublica and The Inquirer iden­ti­fied

hun­dreds of vot­ers who sub­mit­ted three or more du­pli­cate ap­pli­ca­tions; one voter ap­pears to have sub­mit­ted 11.

The ad­min­is­tra­tive night­mare high­lights the dif­fi­culty of ramp­ing up vote- by- mail on the fly with­out enough voter ed­u­ca­tion. Last year, Penn­syl­va­nia passed a law that re­moved the state’s tight re­stric­tions on mail bal­lots and en­abled any reg­is­tered voter to re­ceive a bal­lot with­out giv­ing a rea­son such as travel or ill health. In 2018, only 4% of votes in Penn­syl­va­nia were cast by mail. In the June pri­mary, with the pan­demic dis­cour­ag­ing many peo­ple from vot­ing in per­son, that per­cent­age rose to just over half.

“States that have large num­bers of suc­cess­ful mail vot­ers pre- pan­demic have ed­u­cated their vot­ers about this process over decades, and

Penn­syl­va­nia is try­ing to do this in a mat­ter of months,” said David Becker, founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Elec­tion In­no­va­tion & Re­search in Wash­ing­ton.

Non­govern­men­tal groups have in­un­dated Penn­syl­va­nia vot­ers with mail bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions, mak­ing it easy to re­quest bal­lots — and con­tribut­ing to the flood of du­pli­cates. Vot­ers of­ten be­lieve these un­so­licited and some­times in­ac­cu­rate ap­pli­ca­tions come di­rectly from elec­tions of­fices. Some vot­ers are fill­ing them out even if they’ve pre­vi­ously sub­mit­ted a bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tion.

These groups have cre­ated “con­fu­sion for vot­ers and the like­li­hood that vot­ers will not re­al­ize their ap­pli­ca­tion has been pro­cessed and they don’t need to sub­mit an­other one,” said the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of State, which over­sees elec­tions. It added “some vot­ers may have for­got­ten that they opted to be put on the an­nual mail bal­lot list when they ap­plied for a bal­lot for the June pri­mary.”

Coun­ties big and small across Penn­syl­va­nia have been del­uged with du­pli­cate re­quests. Of­fi­cials in Al­legheny County have re­jected more than 49,000 du­pli­cate bal­lot re­quests from the June pri­mary to Oct. 14. Arm­strong has re­jected 25% of its 5,400 ap­pli­ca­tions as du­pli­cates. Ch­ester County, in the Philadel­phia sub­urbs, has pro­cessed 113,000 ap­pli­ca­tions, and about one in five has been a du­pli­cate. Neigh­bor­ing Mont­gomery County has re­jected 32,000 of its 174,000 ap­pli­ca­tions, or 18%, as du­pli­cates. Philadel­phia has de­nied nearly 49,000 du­pli­cate ap­pli­ca­tions.

Work­ers must han­dle ev­ery ap­pli­ca­tion in­di­vid­u­ally. “We ba­si­cally have to treat them all the same,” said Bill Turner, act­ing elec­tions di­rec­tor for Ch­ester County. “We’re tak­ing a tremen­dous amount of staff time and ef­fort only to find out it’s a du­pli­cate.”

The re­jec­tions en­gen­der mis­trust in al­ready anx­ious vot­ers. Craig Se­wall, 33, a reg­is­tered Demo­crat and a Ph. D. stu­dent in so­cial work at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, got an email from the state this sum­mer invit­ing him to ap­ply for a mail bal­lot for the gen­eral elec­tion. He had voted by mail in the pri­mary and was “very mo­ti­vated to vote” in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, he said. So he fol­lowed the email’s prompts and ap­plied for a bal­lot on­line.

A few weeks later, Mr. Se­wall re­ceived an email from the state. “Your ap­pli­ca­tion was de­clined be­cause of the fol­low­ing rea­son: DECL — DU­PLI­CATE AP­PLI­CA­TION,” the email read. It ad­vised him to call the Al­legheny County Board of Elec­tions if he had any ques­tions.

But when he called, he said, the of­fice was too busy to an­swer his ques­tions. “I’ve been fairly per­sis­tent, and I’m pretty dis­il­lu­sioned,” he said. The mix- up led Mr. Se­wall and his wife, who fol­lowed the same steps but re­ceived a bal­lot, to re­con­sider vot­ing by mail. “We’re still not sure; we might just end up sur­ren­der­ing our bal­lot and vot­ing in per­son just to make sure,” he said.

Amie Downs, an Al­legheny County spokes­woman, ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem had strained staff. “We con­tinue to try to speak with ev­ery­one,” she said. “Even with the ad­di­tion of ex­tra tele­phone lines, a queue and the as­sis­tance of our call cen­ter, call­ers are still hav­ing dif­fi­culty get­ting through.”

In ret­ro­spect, Mr. Se­wall said, he thinks he checked the box on his ap­pli­ca­tion for the pri­mary bal­lot to re­ceive one for the gen­eral elec­tion. Do­ing so would have placed him on a “per­ma­nent list” that vot­ers can opt into as part of the new law. When ap­ply­ing for mail bal­lots, vot­ers can check a box to vote by mail in ev­ery elec­tion that year, as well as to au­to­mat­i­cally re­ceive an ap­pli­ca­tion form an­nu­ally.

“Be­cause be­com­ing a per­ma­nent mail voter is new, this is the first time that they would au­to­mat­i­cally re­ceive a bal­lot with­out hav­ing to ap­ply for it,” said Sarah Sey­mour, elec­tions di­rec­tor in cen­tral P e n n s y l v a n i a ’ s B l a i r County, where more than one in four ap­pli­ca­tions is a du­pli­cate. “They’re un­sure, so they’re send­ing in an­other ap­pli­ca­tion.”

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