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Pa.’s absentee-ballot problem: Votes come in late because of tight deadlines

If past patterns hold, more than 2,000 absentee ballots cast by Pennsylvanians this November won't be counted — and the voters won't know it.

Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt with the 365 absentee ballots that came in after the 2016 general election deadline.
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt with the 365 absentee ballots that came in after the 2016 general election deadline.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Every vote counts. But the reality in Pennsylvania is that not every vote is counted.

In fact, if past patterns hold, more than 2,000 absentee ballots cast by Pennsylvanians this November won't be tallied — and the voters won't know it.

The problem is the deadlines, election officials say: Outdated election laws set timelines that are too compressed. Would-be voters who wait until the end — and of course, people do — have almost no chance of getting their votes counted if they use standard mail service. Just three days separate the deadlines for requesting a mailed absentee ballot and for returning it to county officials.

"We're in the 21st century and we're relying on a 19th-century system," said David Thornburgh, head of the Philadelphia-based good-government group Committee of 70. "It's just absurd in 2018 to be basically back in the Pony Express era."

In 2010, election officials reported 2,162 absentee ballots were rejected for coming in too late; 2,030 were rejected in 2014. And given all the cuts endured by the postal service in recent years, election officials say that if lawmakers don't act, the problem is going to get worse.

The numbers might not be enormous, state and county election officials say, but it matters that thousands of voters end up disenfranchised — and without their knowledge. And who knows — in especially close elections those votes might just make a difference.

Pennsylvania, with deadlines more restrictive than many other states, is a national leader in absentee ballots invalidated because of missed deadlines.

"It stinks. It is the law. The only way we can change it is have legislation passed," said Timothy Benyo, the election director in Lehigh County who heads the Association of Eastern Pennsylvania County Election Personnel. "That has to go through Harrisburg."

In 2012, the financially troubled U.S. Postal Service undertook a massive restructuring, shuttering numerous distribution centers across the state.

"So it takes a couple of days longer for absentee ballots to get from one place to another, and counties are very sensitive to that," said Jonathan Marks, Pennsylvania's elections commissioner.

High turnout in a "wave" election? A move to no-excuse absentee voting? If more people vote absentee, the number of rejected ballots almost certainly will increase, unless the deadline rules are changed.

The problem is worse in Pennsylvania than other states

Pennsylvania's election code gives voters until the Tuesday before an election to request a mail ballot, and county officials have to receive them by 5 p.m. Friday to be counted. Ballots that arrive after that, but before the end of Election Day, don't count.

"There's nothing we can do about it," said Shari Brewer, a Butler County election official who heads the Western Pennsylvania Election Personnel Association. "We have to abide by the laws that we have."

Brewer and other officials said all they can do is warn voters about the deadlines. The Pennsylvania Department of State recommends putting ballots in the mail a full week before the deadline.

As the deadline approaches, several election officials said, they'll remind voters that they can hand-deliver absentee ballots.

Pennsylvania is one of few states where missing deadlines accounts for a majority of rejected absentee ballots. In other states, problems such as missing signatures or using the wrong envelope far outweigh blown deadlines.

Pennsylvania voters consistently miss deadlines at higher rates than other states, according to national election surveys over the last decade. In 2014, for example, 2,030 Pennsylvania absentee ballots were rejected for missing the deadline, out of 2,374 total rejected absentee ballots.

Compare that with New Jersey, which has the same Tuesday deadline for requesting an absentee ballot but allows voters to return them all the way through Election Day. Those additional four days make a difference: In 2014, 1 in 4 rejected absentee ballots in New Jersey were for missing the deadline.

Only three jurisdictions had higher rates of rejections due to missing the deadline in 2014, based on available data: South Carolina, with 533 missed deadlines out of 533 rejected absentee ballots; American Samoa, 3 out of 3, and Delaware, 60 of 62.

In presidential elections, Pennsylvania absentee ballots that come in after the deadline but before 8 p.m. Election Day are counted — but only for the presidential race.

Pennsylvania election officials reported 1,611 rejected absentee ballots in 2008, 1,373 in 2012, and 1,341 in 2016. That doesn't include the partially counted ballots.

Every vote matters

Statewide figures for absentee-ballot rejections in the May primary were unavailable. But in Philadelphia and its suburbs, county officials reported more than 500 primary election absentee ballots came in after the deadline: 186 in Montgomery County, 145 in Philadelphia, 90 in Bucks County, 86 in Chester County, and 56 in Delaware County.

Those numbers are small compared with the total votes cast, but they matter, said Wanda Murren, spokeswoman for the Department of State.

"It seems to be minor, but it's really not," she said. "If you think about someone going through all of the necessary steps for getting an absentee ballot and giving a reason for why they need one … it really is a shame for people that that happens to."

In addition to the matter of principle — every vote counts, which is why people have fought so hard for the right — there is a practical consideration, said Al Schmidt, a Philadelphia city commissioner.

"We do have elections that are close," he said. Especially in smaller local races, the results can be so tight that a handful of votes is decisive. "You never know until the election's over. You never know if it's going to be decided by one vote or 100,000 votes. So it's too late after the fact. So that's why: Every one counts, and you also practically have to treat it like every one could count."

In the most recent example, the results from a special election Tuesday for Ohio's 12th Congressional District remained razor-thin Wednesday, with officials waiting to count provisional and absentee ballots before declaring a winner.

There’s a solution: Change a sentence

A simple change of election-law wording would fix the problem, elections officials said. The deadlines are set in a single sentence in the election code.

Yet legislators haven't acted.

"They acknowledge the problem, just no one has taken any action on it," said Brewer, the head of the Western Pennsylvania election officials group.

As Gov. Wolf and others call for voting reforms, including no-excuse absentee voting to allow more people to vote by mail, they first have to fix the deadline problem, officials said. Otherwise, increasing the number of mail-in votes will mean increasing the number of rejected votes.

"The real fix is change the law to fit reality, because right now it gives people the false impression that if they do everything by the deadline, their vote would count," said Schmidt. "But we and they are at the mercy of the postal service delivery and these deadlines."