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Montgomery County sent out thousands of Pennsylvania absentee ballots with flawed instructions

The mail ballots Montgomery County sent to thousands of voters came with clear instructions for how to fill them out. But those instructions were wrong.

A Philadelphia absentee ballot in 2019.
A Philadelphia absentee ballot in 2019.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The mail ballots Montgomery County sent to thousands of voters came with clear instructions for how to fill them out.

But those instructions were wrong.

“Completely fill in the oval to the left of each candidate or selection you wish to vote,” the instruction sheet for Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary reads.

The correct ovals to fill out are actually to the right. But because the ballot is laid out in two columns, some candidates do have ovals to the left. In fact, those bubbles, which pertain to candidates on the first column, are closer to the candidate names than the correct bubbles are.

It’s unclear how many voters received the wrong instructions and how many have already filled out ballots incorrectly. County officials said it’s likely that “tens of thousands of voters” were sent ballots with the incorrect directions. The error was made on the instruction sheet that accompanied the ballots, not on the ballots themselves.

“Although we regret there was confusion created by this error on the supplemental instructions, we have been able to explain the issue to voters who have reached out with questions,” Lee A. Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board, said in a statement.

“Since the instructions are correct on the ballot itself, and many candidates do not have an oval to their left on the ballot,” he said, “we do not believe this will have an impact on how people will mark their ballots or our ability [to] accurately count their vote.”

Many voters and elections officials are particularly sensitive to issues of ballot design and instruction because of high-profile instances when the ballot itself may have swayed voters and swung elections. That includes 2018 in Broward County, Fla. and, most famously, the “butterfly ballot” and “hanging chads” of Palm Beach County, Fla., in the 2000 presidential election.

This is the first election in which any Pennsylvania voter can vote by mail. That change, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, has led to a massive increase in the number of absentee ballots being requested. Montgomery County has received about 115,000 mail ballot requests this year, compared with about 8,000 in 2016.

Voters who reached out to The Inquirer said they quickly recognized the mistakes, but worried others won’t.

“I was surprised it would have been missed, but it was obvious to me that it was a mistake and I should fill in the ovals to the right, not to the left,” said Rick Fletcher, a voter in Upper Salford who opened his ballot Friday. “I still thought it might not be obvious to everyone, especially given the two-column ballot layout.”

The instruction sheet also tells voters to “use blue or black ink,” contradicting the ballot itself, which warns voters to “use only a black pen or marker.” Soltysiak said blue ink is fine and can be read by ballot scanners. If there’s a problem, he said, the scanner will flag the ballot to be counted by hand.

In another apparent error, the instructions say to place the completed ballot in a small secure envelope labeled “Official Absentee Ballot” or “Official Mail-in Ballot.” That envelope should then be placed into a larger envelope with the same language on it.

But when Linda Sobon looked at her envelopes, one was labeled “Official Election Ballot.” The other said “Official Mail Ballot.”

Neither read “Official Absentee Ballot” or “Official Mail-in Ballot.”

“This is confusing to people,” she said. “The terminology should be precise. You’re explaining to people how to do this, from older folks, people who have trouble reading, and people who have never voted by mail before.”

» READ MORE: Philly will have way fewer polling places for next month’s primary because of coronavirus

The county learned about the problems with the instructions Thursday and fixed the sheets that day, Soltysiak said. All ballots sent out since have come with correct directions.

Soltysiak emphasized all ballots themselves have accurate instructions. But Fletcher, who tried to raise the issue with the state, didn’t actually read those until a reporter asked about them.

“Voting by mail is a new experience for a lot of Pennsylvanians, myself included,” he said. “If you have a question about the process, the obvious place to look is the enclosed instructions. Unfortunately, this time they might give you the wrong answer.”

Like other voters, Fletcher worried about people who might try to follow the instructions and fill out the ballot incorrectly or become confused.

“We’ve got to get it right,” Sobon said. “This is really unacceptable to have this not be clear, precise, and beyond reproach. It has to be.”