By Allie Amado

So you want to use an absentee ballot in a Pennsylvania election? Here are a few tips to make it worth your trouble:

  1. Mail your absentee ballot request at least one week before the election. But I suggest much earlier.
  2. Once you receive your ballot, take care to mark it according to the instructions.
  3. Place your ballot in the mail as soon as possible.
  4. Cross your fingers and hope your ballot reached the county election office before 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election.

No, you are not reading this wrong: there are only two days between the last day you can request an absentee ballot (the Tuesday exactly one week before the election) and the day the ballots are due (the Friday immediately before the election).

 

Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Monday Tuesday
Absentee Ballot Request Deadline     Date the Absentee Ballot Must Reach the County Election Office       Election Day

 

If you’re thinking this turnaround time is a bit unrealistic, you’re right. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, in 2010 and 2014, more than 2,000 absentee ballots were rejected for coming in too late. Eighty-six percent of absentee ballots that are rejected in Pennsylvania are rejected for arriving past the deadline. The only three states that had a higher percentage of absentee ballot rejections for lateness in 2016 were South Carolina (533 of 533) and American Samoa (3 out of 3) both with one-hundred percent, and Delaware (60 out of 62) with ninety-six percent rejected. While these percentages are higher, the number of ballots being rejected in Pennsylvania is almost four times that of South Carolina, more than six-hundred times that of American Samoa, and almost thirty-three times that of Delaware. This turnaround time between the absentee ballot request deadline and the return deadline is much smaller than most other states.

When asked about the absentee ballot issue in Pennsylvania, Patrick Christmas of Philadelphia’s Committee of Seventy, explained the root of the problem as follows: “Pennsylvania’s 1930s-era Election Code poses real problems for our voters. Cumbersome processes and rules around absentee ballots are prime examples.” He believes that “the state urgently needs to remove unnecessary restrictions on their use and ease the application and delivery process.”

According to Mr. Christmas, even though most legislators are aware of the large number of absentee ballots rejected for arriving past the deadline, they are unwilling to adjust the procedures for fear that it may lead to a complete change in the state’s election code. What could begin as a mundane, nuts-and-bolts change could give both Democrats and Republicans the opportunity to introduce other, more partisan changes.

Though the number of rejected absentee ballots might not be overwhelming compared to the total number of votes cast, this can greatly impact the outcome of smaller, local elections. This issue is especially pronounced in crowded primary elections. During the 2018 primary season, the number of votes separating the winners of the U.S. House Pennsylvania seats from the runner-ups were very tight in a number of districts: 1,408 votes in District 7,548 votes in District 10, and 1,514 votes in District 13. This was also true in the 2016 Presidential election, where the difference in votes between the winner and loser of three counties was between 224 votes and 1,988 votes. In the 2016 Senate election, the difference in votes between the winner and loser of three counties was between 1,140 and 1,298. With margins this small and the number of rejected absentee ballots so large, there are many races in which those rejected absentee ballots could have made a difference.

This issue also harms those who are trying to exercise their right to vote. Many Pennsylvania residents believe they are following the application process as outlined on the state website, but are denied the ability to have their vote counted because the articulated timeline is too short. While it is hard to find information on who uses absentee ballots, the state specifically lists illness or physical disability, celebrating a religious holiday, participating in military service, or conducting business outside the state, as valid reasons for using an absentee ballot. These groups of people, largely consisting of those in military service, college students, the elderly, the ill, and the physically disabled, are disproportionately affected.

It has recently come to light that Pennsylvanians stationed or working abroad are blocked from the state election website, and therefore from accessing absentee ballots at all. The security measures election officials had put in place to block foreign access to the state’s website also exclude Pennsylvanians living abroad. Many of these citizens were unable to vote in the 2016 elections despite reaching out directly to the Department of State and the Federal Voting Assistance Program. As recently as September, the Department of State has emailed affected voters with information on how to access the website from overseas. Employees now individually verify each voter’s information and email the ballot directly. However, these absentee voters are still restricted to the states’ strict deadlines. For overseas voters, absentee ballots must be postmarked by 11:59 p.m. the day before Election Day and the ballot must arrive no later than one week after Election Day.

Despite the well-known issues with Pennsylvania’s absentee ballot system, Patrick Christmas explains that those on the ground are not hopeful. “Unfortunately, politics in the General Assembly often prevent even the most commonsense proposals from getting a fair hearing. Sometimes it takes a crisis to create the opportunity for reform. Frustrating as it is, it seems we’re not there yet on this issue.”

 

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