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Pennsylvania struggles with how — or if — to help voters fix their mail ballots

Officials are trying to help voters fix mail ballots that would otherwise be disqualified because of technical mistakes in completing them, creating a patchwork of policies.

A worker sorts Chester County mail ballots.
A worker sorts Chester County mail ballots.Read moreMargo Reed / Philadelphia Inquirer / File Photograph

Officials across Pennsylvania are trying to help voters fix mail ballots that would otherwise be disqualified because of technical mistakes in completing them, creating a patchwork of policies around how — or even whether — people are notified and given a chance to make their votes count.

Some counties are marking those ballots as received, the same as any other ballot, which gives voters no indication there’s a problem. Some are marking them as canceled, as the state says to do, which sends voters warning emails and updates the online ballot status tool but doesn’t notify voters without email addresses on file.

Still others try to reach voters directly, including by mail, phone, or email — and at least one county mails the actual flawed ballots back to voters.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, provided some direction Sunday, telling counties to mark ballots as canceled if they have clear flaws, such as missing voters’ signatures, or are “naked ballots” without the required inner secrecy envelopes. Those ballots have to be rejected when votes are counted beginning on Election Day.

But the state left it to counties to decide how aggressive to be in trying to contact voters to help them fix their ballots — or “cure” them, in election jargon. And some counties aren’t planning to follow the state’s instructions. Officials in Montgomery and Centre Counties, for example, won’t cancel flawed ballots because they want voters to be able to fix them. Allegheny County mails flawed ballots right back to voters, never canceling them nor marking them in the system at all.

The state also fumbled how canceled ballots are handled in the system, which initially led to voters receiving emails with inaccurate information.

Some elections officials described the state’s new directions as flawed themselves, or as simply too late to implement.

“I don’t think it’s right for me to change the way we’re recording ballots at this late date," said Forrest Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania. “It was well-intentioned — they saw a problem and they tried to do something about it — but it’s just too little, too late.”

It’s the latest challenge for a state that has had to quickly build the infrastructure for a massive vote-by-mail operation on top of an aging voter registry built two decades ago. Pennsylvania last year enacted a new law allowing any voter to use mail ballots, but the pandemic has fueled a massive surge in demand beyond anyone’s expectations.

About 1% or 2% of mail ballots in U.S. elections are typically rejected, often because of signature problems or missed deadlines. The state Supreme Court ruled last week that ballots can’t be rejected based on signatures that don’t match what officials have on file, but votes will still be tossed if signatures are missing altogether.

It’s hard to predict how many such flawed ballots there will be, especially with major public-education campaigns over the last few weeks. The issue of naked ballots, in particular, has drawn attention from national groups and celebrities trying to minimize the number of rejected votes.

» READ MORE: How to make sure your vote still counts if you think you submitted a ‘naked ballot’ in Pennsylvania

As counties receive ballots, they scan the bar codes on the envelopes to mark them in the state’s voter database. That’s what powers the online status tracker and sends notification emails to voters. But defining ballots as flawed is complicated, especially because officials aren’t allowed to “inspect” or open ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day.

Does it count as “inspecting” an envelope to check whether a signature is present? Is it OK to set aside ballots that are clearly missing secrecy envelopes? And if counties want to help voters cure flawed ballots, how do they track those ballots? If they mark them as received, voters are told their status is “vote recorded,” even though that’s not necessarily true. If they mark ballots as canceled, does that overstep what they’re allowed to do before Election Day?

After counties sought guidance on flawed ballots from the Department of State, a top official there said counties should scan the flawed ballots as quickly as possible and mark them as canceled. That would trigger notification emails to voters “advising them that their ballot has been canceled, and they will also be informed that they may vote by provisional ballot on Election Day,” wrote Jonathan Marks, the deputy secretary for elections and commissions.

That way, Marks wrote, “the voter has warning that their vote will not be counted unless they take further action.”

But contrary to Marks’ email, the notifications sent to voters didn’t say they can use provisional ballots.

In Wyoming County, in Northeastern Pennsylvania, elections director Florence Kellett followed Marks' instructions Monday morning and scanned flawed ballots as canceled. Instead of clearing things up, the system incorrectly told voters their ballots couldn’t be counted “due to voting at the polling place” — in other words, suggesting they had already voted in person.

Kellett soon began to receive calls from voters who were angry and confused, she said. When she told them they would have to use provisional ballots on Election Day, one said she’s an out-of-town student. Another is undergoing chemotherapy in Philadelphia. They won’t be able to return and cast their votes.

The Department of State quickly stopped the automated emails and updated them Tuesday morning to send the correct information, spokesperson Wanda Murren said.

“The Department will also continue to send out additional emails to voters falling in these codes to inform them of their option to vote by provisional ballot,” she said.

The updated emails tell voters they “must take further action” for their votes to count.

“Don’t miss your chance to vote,” the emails say, “take action today!”

Counties are still handling flawed ballots differently. Some are going further than others to try to reach voters, and some counties aren’t following Marks’ directions to cancel ballots.

Philadelphia officials had been setting clearly flawed ballots aside for the last several weeks. This week, they are marking them as canceled and considering direct outreach to affected voters, who can request replacement ballots or use provisional ballots on Election Day. Delaware County officials had planned to reach out to voters to help them fix their ballots, but will now mark them canceled and rely on the state’s notification emails to reach voters. Bucks County has been sending postcards to voters they can’t reach by phone or email.

“We want to help everyone make sure their vote gets counted,” said Gail Humphrey, chief clerk for Bucks County. “So we’re going to take the extra effort to make sure that happens the best we can.”

In Montgomery County, elections officials aren’t marking flawed ballots in as canceled. Staffers are instead reaching out to voters to tell them they can come in and complete any missing information on their envelopes, request a replacement ballot, or use a provisional ballot.

“We’re not accepting them, so they’re not scanned in and we’re not canceling them,” said Lee Soltysiak, the county’s chief operating officer and chief clerk of its elections board. “We’re giving people the opportunity to cure.”

Centre County also isn’t canceling ballots, and is instead contacting by voters by mail, telling them their ballots are unsigned and to come in and sign them. And in Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, clearly flawed ballots “are being returned by mail to the voter with instructions on how to remedy,” a spokesperson said. “They are not checked in as received.”

Lehman, in Lycoming County, said he’s not planning on canceling any of the flawed ballots. Canceling ballots and setting them aside is just too similar to the ballot processing procedures that aren’t supposed to start until Election Day, he said.

“I also understand that by not doing it, these people won’t be alerted at all,” Lehman said. “But we don’t have any good tools to do this in a way that alerts voters to a problem without a way that makes it seem like we’re jumping the gun.”