Thousands of registered Pennsylvania voters who live outside the United States are being blocked from accessing absentee ballots on the state's website in a move intended to beef up election security.
Several other states, including New Mexico, Tennessee, Georgia, and Vermont, also appear to be blocking foreign access to their election sites.
"This should be a red flashing light issue in the state of Pennsylvania right now. They need to solve it — today," said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of the nonprofit U.S. Vote Foundation. "Because they are actually suppressing votes if this is how it is right now."
Under UOCAVA, an acronym for the law enshrining their voting rights and procedures, military and overseas civilian voters are supposed to be able to request an absentee ballot and have it sent to them to fill out and return. In Pennsylvania, voters can request absentee ballots by mail or as a download link by email.
Late last month, those emails began going out, along with detailed step-by-step instructions. But when voters outside the United States went to log in, they were met with an error page: "The page you are looking for cannot be found. Error 3759."
It's not actually an error, or a temporary server problem or a wrong URL: It's an intentional attempt to block foreign traffic.
"You have very little information as a voter abroad about how you can go about fixing this," said Jeffrey Cheng, 31, who has lived in Sweden for four years after having lived in Philadelphia for eight years.
Cheng had been able to figure out a work-around through a technical loophole that was later closed. He said the Department of State told him to use a VPN, which funnels internet traffic through remote networks, in this case to route his request through the United States.
It wasn't a major problem for Cheng — but, he said, he works in IT and knows what to do. Others might not.
"This is definitely putting a barrier to voting," he said, noting that trustworthy VPN services are generally not free "and they're not easily accessible for everyone."
Department of State spokesperson Wanda Murren said Tuesday that officials have begun notifying voters about the issue and giving them a work-around, which by nature means extra work: Voters who are unable to access their ballots should call the state help desk at 1-866-472-7873 or send an email to STSVCSURE_Helpdesk@pa.gov, and a worker will email a ballot directly to the voter.
"Due to increased security measures that safeguard the voting process, some overseas absentee voters may have trouble accessing the website," Murren said in a statement.
State websites were updated Monday and Tuesday with the contact information for the help desk.
About 4,000 voters have already registered for overseas or military absentee ballots, and it's unknown how many will ultimately do so. In the November 2016 election, 19,351 civilian Pennsylvania voters abroad requested absentee ballots and 10,833 Pennsylvania voters requested mail-in ballots because of active military status.
New Jersey doesn't appear to be blocking access. A spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of State did not respond to emailed questions Tuesday.
For voters who may already face obstacles — from time-zone differences that make contacting the Department of State inconvenient to more dire issues such as active combat — the lack of information can be frustrating and even prevent someone from voting.
Other states have also limited access to election sites based on location. People abroad were unable this week to load sites from New Mexico, Tennessee, Vermont, and Georgia. The Inquirer and Daily News replicated these results using a VPN routing through other countries.
Calls and emails to the offices of the Tennessee, Georgia, and Vermont secretaries of state were not returned Tuesday. A spokesperson for the Georgia secretary of state acknowledged the geo-blocking policy in August to Buzzfeed News.
A spokesperson for the New Mexico Office of the Secretary of State said that office began blocking overseas access to its election site earlier this year.
"Email works fine, so we can email people overseas and they can email us back," Alex Curtas, the spokesperson, wrote in an email. "But, for security reasons, someone living overseas can't access our web systems (like requesting an absentee ballot through our online system)."
John Merrill, the Alabama secretary of state, said his office has found a compromise: Overseas access remains generally blocked, but specific places are whitelisted, or allowed. After all, he pointed out, his office knows each voter's location.
"If we don't have somebody in Yugoslavia, we don't really need to open the portal to Yugoslavia," he said in an interview. Alabama has used this system since 2016.
David Beirne, the director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, said in a statement that the program recognizes the importance of cybersecurity concerns, but "access to key election information for our military, their families, and overseas citizens needs to be considered in their security approach."
He identified the Alabama approach of whitelisting certain networks and locations as "important for those voters who may wish to participate in the 2018 election, but find themselves in less-than-hospitable environments."
Murren said Pennsylvania is working on longer-term solutions "that will meet our increased standards of security."
It's an important lesson about unintended consequences and blind spots, said Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles whose work in elections and democracy includes serving in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 2015-17.
"There are lots of security measures that election officials are urged to take, and thinking through the consequences is important," he said. "I don't think that anybody in Pennsylvania deliberately set the system up to cause problems for UOCAVA voters, but it's an important example of why all of the voting populations need to be kept in mind when you're designing general policy."
What to do if you can't access the Pennsylvania elections website
Contact the Pennsylvania Department of State's Help Desk at 1-866-472-7873 or STSVCSURE_Helpdesk@pa.gov and an employee will verify your identity and email you a ballot directly.
You can also contact your local county election officials — find their information here — or the Federal Voting Assistance Program at 1-800-438-VOTE (8683) and firstname.lastname@example.org. The nonprofit U.S. Vote Foundation runs an Overseas Vote program that also provides assistance to voters abroad.