Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania voters were almost disenfranchised last week. Thousands of others actually were.
And things could be even worse in November.
That’s the clear takeaway from a review of state data on mail ballots, along with interviews with elections officials in several of Pennsylvania’s largest counties: Tens of thousands of ballots arrived in the week after the June 2 primary election, and thousands more voters who applied to vote by mail ended up using provisional ballots at the polls instead.
Most of those votes will be counted after orders from Gov. Tom Wolf and judges extending ballot deadlines for specific counties. But that leaves thousands of votes in the rest of the state uncounted. And those orders applied only to this election, leaving in place what many election officials say are problematic deadlines that will continue to ensnare voters in November and future elections.
“These deadlines have real consequences,” said Delaware County Council Member Christine Reuther. “And one of them is, people are going to be disenfranchised.”
It’s a problem that Reuther and other elections officials across the state had warned about. A new state law allowing anyone to vote by mail and coronavirus fears of voting in person led to a massive volume of mail ballots. The pandemic also made the mail ballot process slower than normal, they said, in part because of unpredictable delivery times. Officials warned that thousands or even tens of thousands of voters would receive their ballots too late to return them.
They were right.
In Philadelphia alone, officials said, more than 14,600 ballots arrived after the deadline. Allegheny County had 9,400. Montgomery County had more than 5,800, Delaware County had 2,500, and Bucks County had more than 1,200. Those were among the counties that received extensions and will have most of those late ballots counted.
Others received no extension, including Chester County, which had 1,600 ballots arrive late. The numbers are much lower in the rest of the state’s smaller counties, such as Northampton with its 300 late ballots. But those numbers likely add up to thousands of rejected votes.
The number could be as high as 75,700 late ballots statewide, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections. But that data did not align with what some counties reported and is based on a system that for technical reasons overstates the numbers. That data showed 8,680 late ballots in counties that did not have extensions.
Donald Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in the state was 44,000 votes, or about 0.7%.
“We’ve been saying what was going to happen, and nobody was listening to us, and it happened,” said Deborah Olivieri, elections director for Berks County, which had “a couple hundred” ballots arrive after the deadline. “I hope they’ll listen to us now.”
The counties also saw a significant spike in provisional ballots, which are paper ballots used at polling places when a voter’s status has to be confirmed after election day. Elections officials said most of the provisional ballots were used by voters who had applied for mail ballots and were unable to return them in time, a sign the deadlines were too tight. Bucks County, for example, had about 2,500 provisional ballots, far surpassing the previous record of 400. Almost 1,600 of them were from people who had requested mail ballots.
It’s also impossible to know how many voters simply didn’t cast a ballot, choosing to sit out the election because they could not meet the mail deadline.
There are always some voters who turn in their ballots too late, and not every late arrival means a voter was silenced. Some people who sent mail ballots too late may have also voted using provisional ballots. Wolf ordered late-arriving ballots to be counted in six counties, including Philadelphia, if they were postmarked by election day.
And as always, some voters sent their ballots in after election day itself, which isn’t allowed. Out of Allegheny County’s 9,400 or so late-arriving mail ballots, about 6,800 were postmarked by election day and will be counted under Wolf’s order. But 2,600 were not.
“No matter what the deadline is, there are always going to be late ones; people wait until the last minute,” said Tim Benyo, the chief elections clerk for Lehigh County. “It’s going to happen every time. I don’t know what the fix is.”
He’s not the only one who’s unsure of a solution. Some elections officials and lawmakers want an earlier deadline for requesting a ballot. Others suggest a later deadline for returning them, and multiple lawsuits have sought such an extension. Others propose a combination of the two or some other method.
Whatever the fix, elections administrators generally agree on one thing: The current timeline shuts out some voters.
Voters can apply for mail ballots up to one week before election day, and the ballots must be returned to county elections officials by 8 p.m. on election day. For voters who apply at the deadline, that leaves just one week for elections officials to process and approve applications, print and prepare ballots, and mail them to voters — then for voters to fill out the ballot and mail it back.
But some of those steps can take a day or two if not more, and the pandemic exacerbated that.
“It’s insufficient and unrealistic that anyone could ever apply for a ballot on or, frankly, near the deadline and have any faith that it would be returned by 8 p.m." one week later, said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and the clerk of its elections board. “It’s not realistic. It’s disingenuous to suggest it’s even possible.”
State lawmakers should change the deadlines, county officials said.
“They should have introduced something the day after the election. It was so obvious,” said Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, chair of the Bucks County commissioners.
Olivieri was hopeful that evidence of the problem will spur a change.
“We’re not just talking [about change] because we don’t want to deal with it, we’re talking because we know what’s going to come down the road,” she said. “I just hope they listen to us now. We’re not crying wolf or ‘the sky is falling’ for no reason.”