The majority of the 372,000 denied ballot requests, some 90 percent, were rejected as duplicates after voters mistakenly submitted repeat applications. Many did so unaware they had already agreed to be sent a ballot by mail during the state’s June 2 primary, as ballots for the prior race allowed voters to check a box to automatically receive a ballot for the general election as well. Ultimately, one in five applications have been turned down.
“Some voters may have forgotten that they opted to be put on the annual mail ballot list when they applied for a ballot for the June primary,” the Pennsylvania Department of State said.
Vague and misleading information on the state’s official ballot-tracking website has also led voters astray, prompting a deluge of inquiries that has virtually crippled elections offices across Pennsylvania – some even forced to take on temporary staff to cope with the influx of questions.
“The volume of calls we have been getting has been overwhelming,” Marybeth Kuznik, elections director in Armstrong County, some 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, told ProPublica.
It has been almost like a denial of service attack at times because it seemed that sometimes all I could get done was answer the phone!
Requests from around 208,000 individual voters were rejected overall, hundreds of them submitting three or more applications each, according to ProPublica, which co-reported with the Philadelphia Inquirer. One voter appears to have made 11 attempts in total.
One likely explanation for the rash of confusion is a lack of clarity in rejection notices sent out to voters from public officials, which alert residents that they filed a duplicate request but offer no explanation for how or why.
“They could explain what that means. A duplicate: you have applied before, we already have an application on file for you. Sit back, relax, it’s going to be coming in the mail,” said Lee Soltysiak, the chief operating officer and clerk of the Montgomery County elections board, which received 5,000 calls per day from baffled voters last week.
The mix-ups have driven doubts about the integrity of the mail-in system among some residents, such as 33-year-old Craig Sewall, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh who described himself as “very motivated to vote.” After applying for a mail-in ballot for the general election online, Sewall received an email from the state notifying him his “application was declined because of the following reason: DECL – DUPLICATE APPLICATION,” advising him to contact his local elections board. Yet when he called, Sewall said the office was unable to answer his questions.
“I’ve been fairly persistent and I’m pretty disillusioned,” he lamented, adding that he and his wife “might just end up surrendering our ballot and voting in person just to make sure,” concerned the issues with the mail-in ballots won’t be resolved by November 3.
While voters whose applications are turned down will still be able to cast ballots in-person on election day, the mail-in mishaps and the lack of clarity from officials could discourage some residents altogether.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly taken aim at universal mail-in voting, deeming it highly vulnerable to fraud and errors, even warning the system could mar the result of the 2020 race. Though there’s no indication the issues in Pennsylvania are linked to fraud, similar difficulties elsewhere in the country – such as one Ohio county that mailed out 50,000 invalid ballots last week – will likely only deepen skepticism in distance voting.
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