Pennsylvania elections officials have never done this before, and they’re bracing themselves for trouble.

As part of the new vote-by-mail system, state law now allows voters to sign up for a “permanent list” to automatically receive mail ballot applications every year. The law says counties have to send those applications by the first Monday in February.

It’s been an administrative headache for county elections offices, which in some cases have to send more mail at once than ever before. Montgomery County, for example, sent ballots in batches of tens of thousands at a time last fall. On Monday, it’s sending a massive mailing of letters and applications to 196,000 voters.

And elections officials are worried about voter confusion, ranging from those who believed the permanent list meant they would automatically be sent ballots — not applications — to voters who don’t remember signing up for the list and aren’t sure why they’re receiving a mailing.

“This is a whole brand-new component that nobody has yet experienced,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and chief clerk of its elections board.

The county has hired temporary workers in preparation for the applications and phone calls officials anticipate will soon begin flooding in.

“We’re preparing for a prime-time, high-turnout-election kind of interest over the next couple of weeks because of these letters dropping,” Soltysiak said.

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The rollout of the permanent list mailings has been bumpy, with counties initially unable to obtain accurate data and then receiving correct data and materials just two weeks before the deadline. Some growing pains are to be expected — especially following a challenging, tiring election just a few months ago — but several officials said that it’s been a frustrating experience and that they’re worried the headache will become an annual migraine.

“It’s a nightmare for us, logistically,” said Sara May-Silfee, election director for Monroe County in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She had prepared a booklet to better explain the mailing to voters but had to scale back her plans because the Pennsylvania Department of State didn’t send materials and data until Jan. 15.

In Lycoming County, in northern Pennsylvania, elections director Forrest Lehman said he had originally planned to print and mail the applications and letters in-house, but the state’s delay forced him to enlist an outside vendor, costing the county money.

Christine Reuther, a Delaware County Council member who works with the elections departments, was reminded about the permanent list when a reporter asked about it last week.

“Wow, I hadn’t focused on that at all. We need to get those printed. That means we need to get those printed,” she said, before asking when the mailings have to be sent.

Monday.

“Oh, that’s not going to happen in Delaware County,” Reuther said.

On Sunday, Reuther confirmed the applications wouldn’t be mailed out by Monday.

”Counties like Delaware County that have been dealing with the near-constant demands of lawsuits since the election and associated demands for documents and data are behind in other time-sensitive tasks,” she said, calling the permanent list mailing “another unfunded mandate from the state in terms of staff time and printing and mailing costs.”

A spokesperson for the Department of State said “the first year of any new provision is always the most challenging” and encouraged voters to visit the department’s website for more information.

What is the permanent list?

Under the law enacted in late 2019, voters can sign up for a permanent mail voter list when they apply for mail ballots.

But it’s not what it sounds like.

Here’s how it works: When voters add themselves to the list, they automatically apply for mail ballots for every election just that year. Many who requested mail ballots in last year’s primary election, for example, were automatically signed up to receive ballots for the general election in November.

Voters are automatically sent ballots only during one calendar year. After that, they’ll receive ballot applications, which they can once again use to sign up for ballots in all elections that year. (This doesn’t apply to voters with disabilities, who have long had a separate permanent list that actually does involve permanently receiving ballots.)

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The mailings being sent now are going out to all voters who checked the box for permanent status.

Voters have to fill out an entire ballot application again to receive mail ballots. Voters can request to cancel their application and remove themselves from the list. Otherwise, they’ll continue receiving an application at the start of every year.

Voters can also fill out the application online at votespa.com/applymailballot.

Worries about voter confusion

The permanent list created a lot of confusion last year, when voters who didn’t realize they were on it submitted hundreds of thousands of duplicate applications for mail ballots, overwhelming already overworked elections offices.

A spokesperson for the Department of State didn’t have the number of permanent list voters Friday, but there were 1.5 million such voters after last year’s primary, and the number has only grown since. Based on numbers provided by several counties, most voters who requested mail ballots last year appear to have also signed up for the permanent list.

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That means a lot of voters will soon be receiving applications who might not remember checking the box.

“I’ll be fascinated to see how many people cancel their mail-in applications,” said Thad Hall, elections director for Mercer County, in Western Pennsylvania. “A lot of those people are people who I think didn’t mean to sign up to be a permanent voter.”

Then there are voters who do remember signing up for permanent status, but thought it would mean permanently being signed up to receive ballots — not to have to submit an application every year.

“If you’re going to have something permanent, why don’t you make it permanent?” Hall said.

Long-term challenges

Future years should be less bumpy, county elections officials said, but they saw several challenges that will persist.

It’s expensive to print and mail the letters and applications, and for some counties this will be the largest mailing all year. It’s also a technical and logistical challenge to make sure all the right materials go to the right people.

“A mailing to over a quarter-million people is never a simple task,” said Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner for Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, the chief elections officer. The city commissioners are sending applications Monday to all 282,000 voters on the permanent list.

“It’s definitely yet another unfunded mandate that the counties are having to absorb this February,” Custodio said. “Just look at postage alone on 280,000 letters.”

County elections officials also worry about the list growing to a monstrous size, similar to the way voter rolls are messy and sometimes difficult to maintain.