During a historic primary already battling the delays and increased safety measures of COVID-19, complications with write-in ballots and limited provisional ballots are an “absolute mess,” according to Forrest Lehman, director of Lycoming County Voter Services.
“Something has to change,” Lehman said Tuesday afternoon after his office had spent the morning sending out extra provisional ballots to county polling places.
The passage of Act 77 in late October of 2019 meant that anyone who applied for a mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania would be sent one and be permitted to vote from home. The 2020 Primary was intended to be a test run for the new process, according to legislators, with Lehman expecting less than 25% of votes to be mailed.
However, the explosion of COVID-19 as a global pandemic and calls for voters to stay home have put an unanticipated strain on the system.
“Nobody’s attempted it on this scale before,” Lehman said. The Lycoming County Voter Services office spent most of the day Tuesday scanning in the write-in ballots, however the results from those couldn’t be posted until after 8 p.m.
“We’re making good progress,” he said around mid-afternoon, expecting to have the unofficial mail-in results by the end of the night.
However, while the county sent out 10,500 mail-in ballots, it only received 7,000 in return. This means that up to 3,500 voters who received an absentee ballot may also turn up to the polls.
If this happens, voters who already received a ballot in the mail are required to use a provisional ballot, which will be filled out by hand and placed in a secure envelope to be counted at a later time, which ensures they can’t vote twice.
This is contrary to the normal votes, which are written onto a paper ballot and then scanned into the voting system to be counted immediately.
“It is the act of applying for an absentee or mail in ballot that diverts them to need a provisional ballot,” Lehman said. “We didn’t have nearly enough provisional ballots at the polls.”
In a standard year, only a small number of provisional ballots would be required to accommodate the few who were approved to vote as an absentee.
While the unofficial results from mail-in votes and day-of votes will be available Tuesday night, Lehman said the provisional ballots may take as long as a week to count.
It’s a minor inconvenience for a primary with very few contested races, but, Lehman said if something is not changed by November, the massive amount of provisional ballots will mean Pennsylvania won’t be able to be called on election night.
“It’s a structural problem in the law,” he said.