Pa. rejects 372,000 applications for mail- in ballots
Most were duplicates, but voters still confused
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.”