(Propublica) This article is co-published with The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Pennsylvania, one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds in the presidential election, has rejected 372,000 requests for mail-in ballots, straining election offices and bewildering voters.
More than 90% of those applications, or about 336,000, were denied as duplicates, primarily because people who had requested mail-in ballots for the state’s June 2 primary did not realize that they had checked a box to be sent ballots for the general election, too. Voters have also been baffled by unclear or inaccurate information on the state’s ballot-tracking website, and by a wave of mail ballot applications from political parties and get-out-the-vote groups. County offices across the state have been forced to hire temporary staff and work seven days a week to cope with the confusion.
“The volume of calls we have been getting has been overwhelming,” said Marybeth Kuznik, elections director in Armstrong County, northeast of Pittsburgh. It’s been preventing her office from working on anything else: “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!”
Though it may deter some people from voting, the mass rejection of ballot applications is unlikely to have a big effect on turnout. Voters who submitted duplicate applications should eventually receive a ballot. Those who don’t can still vote at the polls on Election Day.
Overall, one out of every five requests for a mail-in ballot are being rejected in Pennsylvania. An estimated 208,000 Pennsylvania voters sent in the spurned requests, some submitting them multiple times. Although the state’s email rejecting the requests describes them as duplicates, it doesn’t explain why, prompting some people to reapply. ProPublica and The Philadelphia Inquirer identified hundreds of voters who submitted three or more duplicate applications; one voter appears to have submitted 11 duplicates.
The administrative nightmare highlights the difficulty of ramping up vote-by-mail on the fly without enough voter education. Last year, Pennsylvania passed a law that removed the state’s tight restrictions on mail ballots and enabled any registered voter to receive a ballot without giving a reason such as travel or ill health. In 2018, only 4% of votes in Pennsylvania were cast by mail. In the June primary, with the pandemic discouraging many people from voting in person, that percentage rose to just over half.
“States that have large numbers of successful mail voters, pre-pandemic, have educated their voters about this process over decades, and Pennsylvania is trying to do this in a matter of months,” said David Becker, founder and executive director of Center for Election Innovation & Research in Washington.
Nongovernmental groups have inundated Pennsylvania voters with mail-in ballot applications, making it easy to request ballots — and contributing to the flood of duplicates. Voters often believe these unsolicited and sometimes inaccurate applications come directly from elections offices. Some voters are filling them out even if they’ve previously submitted a ballot application.