The delays resulting from a printing error made by Lancaster County's ballot vendor mean it will be several days before the full results of Tuesday's primary election are known here, officials said Tuesday.
County commissioners Ray D'Agostino and Josh Parsons, in their capacity as Board of Elections members, and elections Chief Clerk Christa Miller held a hastily arranged news conference early Tuesday afternoon, following up on the board's announcement late that morning that ballot vendor NPC had printed numerous mail-in ballots with the wrong identification code.
The code has to match up with the programming of the county's central scanners, so the mix-up means they can't be scanned.
NPC made the mistake after the county verified and approved the test ballots that NPC provided, D'Agostino and Parsons said. It appears NPC printed a portion of the ballots from a different file, they said, but cautioned that a full investigation and determination has yet to be made.
Miller said she is "obviously" disappointed. Before canvassing began, her team had envisioned possibly completing all ballot counting Tuesday.
"I had very high hopes for today that, you know, just aren't coming true," she said.
As of Tuesday morning, about 21,000 of the 28,000 mail-in ballots that the county had sent out had been returned. About two-thirds of the ones opened Tuesday morning were not scanning, Miller said.
There are no indications of any problems with the ballots being used at polling places, she and the commissioners said. Reports from the field indicate they are scanning normally.
A Pennsylvania Department of State spokeswoman said the department has been informed of the situation in Lancaster County and is prepared to help "in any way it can." It is not aware of any ballot printing errors in other counties, she said.
Miller said county has about 60 staff and volunteers working in shifts to process ballots. They are opening all the mail-in ballots, separating the ones that can't be scanned and scanning those with the correct code.
The faulty ballots are being re-marked, Miller said. That involves copying over the information onto a new ballot with the correct ID code and marking both ballots so they can be correlated with each other, creating a verifiable audit trail of the process.
The re-marking is done in teams of three: A ballot reader, a writer who fills out the new ballot and an observer who oversees their work to ensure accuracy.
All the pre-canvassing and canvassing is being done in a county conference room, accessible to credentialed political party and campaign representatives and media. There is "absolute transparency," Parsons said.
The re-marking process is the same used last year when a similar printing error occurred. In the wake of that incident, the county terminated its contract with its vendor at the time, Plerus.
Last fall, NPC printed an estimated 16,000 faulty mail-in ballots for Montgomery County.
The county will be evaluating its relationship with NPC, D'Agostino said. But the bigger issue, he said, is the sheer difficulty of administering voting by mail in Pennsylvania, where numerous elected offices make for lengthy, complicated ballots and large counties have no choice but to work with third-party vendors due to the volume of ballots that must be printed.
The commissioners said they conferred with leaders of the local Republican and Democratic committees in deciding to use the workaround once again.
Republican committee chairman Kirk Radanovic and his Democratic counterpart, Diane Topakian, attended the news conference but did not make comments.
NPC's error will not affect the integrity of the election, Miller and the commissioners emphasized.
"Every ballot that we have received will be counted," Miller said. "... It will take us a few extra days, and we may have to re-mark it, but we will take care of it."
The commissioners said NPC has accepted responsibility for the mistake. The cost to the county remains to be seen, as does the question of whether some or all of it can be recouped from the vendor.
They said the mix-up underscores the problems with Act 77, the 2019 law that authorized no-excuse mail-in voting, and demonstrates why it should be repealed. For election administrators, Act 77 is "untenable," D'Agostino said.
Said Parsons, "I believe we need to reset and go back to the old way." At an absolute minimum, he said, the law must be amended to allow counties to pre-canvass — open and sort mail-in ballots in preparation for scanning — before 7 a.m. on Election Day.
Thirty-seven U.S. states permit pre-canvassing. But because it's not allowed under Act 77, there was no way to discover NPC's error until the first ballots were opened this morning, Parsons said.
"Citizens deserve to have accurate results from elections and they deserve to have them on election night, not days later," he said.
In a statement, Parsons' and D'Agostino's Democratic colleague, Commissioner John Trescot, said Tuesday's problem shows that allowing pre-canvassing would be valuable, but does not mean Act 77 as a whole is unworkable.