Any mail-in voters in Lancaster County who were thrown off by the mistake in the instructions sent out with their ballots will have the opportunity for a do-over, the Board of Elections decided Wednesday.
The measure it approved allows mail-in voters who applied for ballots on or before Oct. 5 and believe they may have been impacted by the error to appear in person at the county Elections Office and ask staff to visually inspect their outer envelope.
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If that shows that no secrecy envelope is inside, the ballot will be canceled and a replacement will be issued, along with a secrecy envelope, outer envelope and a correct set of instructions.
Voters may request the inspections through 5 p.m. Nov. 6, the Monday before Election Day. They must present valid ID. If a voter with a disability uses a designated agent, the agent must have the correct paperwork and ID.
The board’s chairman, Commissioner John Trescot, and member Judge Jeffery Wright voted “yes” on the motion. Its third member, former county Solicitor Christina Hausner, was absent, making the outcome 2-0.
Its action comes after the disclosure last week that about 24,000 mail-in ballots had been sent to voters with instructions that contained a mistake regarding the color of the secrecy envelope.
Beginning with this election, the county is using yellow secrecy envelopes rather than white ones to differentiate them by color and make them stand out, an idea being tried in other counties as well. However, the instructions still referred to them as “white.”
The change was one of two made after the spring primary in an effort to better guide voters and reduce mistakes. The other is on the outer envelope: The phrase “Today’s date required” was altered to “Date of Signature.”
The erroneous description of the secrecy envelope was caught on Oct. 5 and the distribution of ballots was put on hold until it was corrected, Trescot said. All ballots sent out since Oct. 5 have the correct instructions, he said.
The Elections Office also posted the correct instructions on the front page of its website, and sent out 24,000 emails to clarify the correct procedure. Efforts have been made to notify everyone affected, but not every voter has an email address on file, Trescot said. There are no plans to follow up with mailed letters, he said.
Allowing voters to correct those procedural mistakes after submitting their ballot is known as “ballot curing.” Wednesday’s measure is essentially a one-time, targeted ballot curing provision.
“It’s an appropriate response,” Trescot said.
Requiring requests for inspection to be made in person assures transparency and ballot security, he said, and the deadline is 5 p.m. Nov. 6 due to staffing and logistical reasons: On Election Day itself, staff members don’t have any spare time and ballots are in the process of being pre-canvassed.
The erroneous instruction is the latest in a string of mistakes on mail-in ballots, including one this spring. Previous errors have included mistaken mailing instructions and incorrect ballot codes that required Elections Office staff to re-mark ballots by hand.
No process can be guaranteed error-free, but each time, the Elections Office has taken immediate corrective action and been transparent, Trescot said. He said the mistakes have not resulted in the disenfranchisement of any voter.
Trescot said the county will continue to do its best to get the word out. He noted that voters can continue to request mail-in ballots through Oct. 31.
Running elections is complicated, he said: This time alone, Lancaster County must print about 100 different ballots to account for all the permutations of the races in its 60 municipalities and 17 school districts.
Sharon Greelish Cody, who attended the board’s meeting, said her husband received the email, but she didn’t. Trescot suggested she check her email with the Elections Office.
Pennsylvania law requires mail-in voters to seal their filled-out ballots in an unmarked secrecy envelope, place that in a mail-in envelope, then seal, sign and date the latter. In recent elections, a handful of voters have failed to complete one or more of those steps correctly. In the spring primary, 67 mail-in ballots were returned without secrecy envelopes and 138 weren’t properly signed and dated.
Before the spring primary, Trescot proposed allowing ballot curing on an ongoing basis, but the motion was defeated 1-1, with Trescot voting “yes,” Hausner voting “no” and Wright absent.
On Wednesday, Mary Grill, a member of the Lancaster County League of Women Voters, told the board the county should allow ballot curing in general.
“We’re all human,” she said.
No-excuse mail-in balloting was authorized by Pennsylvania’s Act 77. Commissioners Ray D’Agostino and Josh Parsons have said the logistics of mail-in elections are too cumbersome and prone to error, and have called for repealing the law and returning to mostly in-person voting. Both spoke against Trescot’s proposal for ballot curing, saying the board should not make such a sharp break with precedent.
Normally, they would be the other two members of the Election Board, but they are running for re-election on the Republican ticket, leaving Trescot, a Democrat, as the sole commissioner on the board. In December, President Judge David Ashworth appointed Wright and Hausner as interim Election Board members.
On Wednesday, Trescot characterized the existing mix of state law and county-by-county policies as a “patchwork” and called for legislators in Harrisburg to pass a uniform set of workable procedures for county election boards to follow.
In a statement on behalf of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee, its chairman, Tom O’Brien, praised the Election Board’s decision “as a positive sign that all voters who wish to vote will have a ballot counted this year despite the printing error,” and urged ongoing efforts to promote voting accessibility.
The Lancaster County Republican Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.