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Thousands of Pennsylvania voters might not get their mail ballots in time to actually vote

The coronavirus pandemic is making every step of the vote-by-mail process take longer than usual.

County elections officials are warning that thousands of Pennsylvania voters who apply for mail ballots could receive them too late for their votes to be counted.
County elections officials are warning that thousands of Pennsylvania voters who apply for mail ballots could receive them too late for their votes to be counted.Read more / Staff Photographer, File

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania voters have been applying for mail ballots every day leading up to Tuesday’s deadline.

It’s unclear how many will receive them in time to actually vote in next week’s primary.

“There are going to be many people who are still going to be receiving their ballots very close to election day or on election day,” Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther said. “I’m very worried that people are going to be disenfranchised.”

Reuther and other county elections officials across the state are warning that an unexpected surge of mail ballots this year, combined with uncertain mail delivery times and coronavirus-related staffing changes, could lead thousands or even tens of thousands of voters to receive their ballots without enough time to mail them back. Some will likely not even receive them until after the election. Others will put their ballots in the mail and expect them to be counted, never knowing their votes arrived after the June 2 election day deadline.

The coronavirus pandemic is making every step of the vote-by-mail process take longer than usual. After a voter requests a ballot, it can take a few days to process that application, a day or two to print and prepare the ballot, and a few days for it to be delivered. All told, it can take a week or more for ballots to arrive in a voter’s mailbox.

And Pennsylvania law sets a strict deadline: Absentee ballots must be received by county elections officials by 8 p.m. on election day to be counted, regardless of when they were mailed. Postmarks don’t count. That deadline actually gives voters more time than they used to have, after lawmakers expanded what was one of the country’s tightest absentee-ballot deadline windows.

But a one-week turnaround that might work under normal circumstances doesn’t work in a pandemic, county officials said. And they worry the problem will be even worse in November, when turnout is higher.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results were already going to be delayed. Coronavirus will make it even worse.

Some officials, including in Philadelphia and its suburbs, are calling on state lawmakers to pass legislation to allow ballots to be counted if they’re postmarked by election day. Others hope courts will step in to intervene and are closely watching a case pending in state court.

Montgomery County filed an emergency petition in Common Pleas Court on Tuesday seeking to extend the deadline by one week. That would allow ballots to still be counted if they arrive within a week of the election. Voters could be disenfranchised without the change, the county said.

“Without a doubt, the deadlines for applying for an absentee ballot and also the date by which it can be returned, [lawmakers] should deal with that today," said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its elections board. "But if they don’t, that should really be the first order of business for November. And I think we’ll have the proof ... after this primary that thousands of voters will very likely not have their votes counted.”

A new election law allows any Pennsylvania voter to vote by mail. The pandemic-driven surge in requests for mail ballots has come at a faster and faster clip in the days leading up to the deadline.

“It’s hard because they come in so fast … it’s unrelenting,” said Gail Humphrey, chief clerk for Bucks County. Her elections staff now processes ballots for 16 hours a day to try to keep up. She’s had to seek help from other departments.

“They arrived like the cavalry,” Humphrey said.

Similarly, Philadelphia elections staff have been supplemented in recent weeks by city employees from other departments, with dozens helping stuff envelopes and get ballots out in time.

“As you might imagine, the City Commissioners Office has received a significant influx of mail-in ballot applications and completed ballots," James R. Engler, chief of staff to Mayor Jim Kenney, wrote in an email Friday calling for city departments to send three to five people each to work over the weekend or Tuesday. "Unfortunately, due to the current backlog, the City is in jeopardy of not getting ballots out to voters in time for the June 2nd primary and we need your support.”

The call to arms appears to have worked, with the city clearing out the backlog Monday afternoon before the last-day crush of applications.

Delivery of election mail isn’t taking any longer than normal, a spokesperson for the United States Postal Service said, though voters and officials have complained of longer delivery times than they’re used to.

To account for any possible delays, elections officials should “allow one week for delivery” of a ballot to voters, said Ray V. Daiutolo Sr., the regional USPS spokesperson. Similarly, voters returning ballots should “mail their completed ballots at least one week before the due date.”

That’s a two-week round-trip, meaning a voter who requested a ballot Tuesday, and has it put in the mail Friday or Saturday, might not even receive it until after election day.

“I think that’s the scariest part for every county right now,” Humphrey said. “People have until May 26 [to apply], but we have no control over the U.S. mail.”

Elections officials also worry that voters who do receive their ballots by election day will either recognize they can’t get them back in time and give up — or mail them back without realizing they won’t be received in time. Would-be voters aren’t notified if their ballots arrive after election day, leaving them with no idea their votes never counted.

Voters should turn in their mail ballots as soon as possible, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a conference call with reporters last week.

“Do not wait to send in your ballot. … As soon as you get it, please send it in,” she said, urging voters to “mail it super fast” or drop it off at their county board of elections.

For voters who don’t have time to mail their ballots back, counties are rushing to set up drop boxes. Ballots put in them by 8 p.m. on election day will count.

Voters who request mail ballots and then show up at the polls are not allowed to cast a normal vote, but must instead use a provisional ballot, which is only counted after county officials confirm they did not also vote by mail.

Mail ballot applications are due by 5 p.m. Tuesday and can be submitted online. To check on the status of a ballot, use the state’s online tool or contact your county elections office. Completed ballots must be received by county elections officials by 8 p.m. on election day, June 2.

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.