Counties still finalizing Pennsylvania primary vote counts as election integrity concerns emerge

Voting advocates flag problems they say will mushroom in November if left unchecked.

  • Emily Previti/PA Post

(Harrisburg) — It’s been 15 days since the June 2 primary election, but several of Pennsylvania’s most populous counties are still finalizing their results.

Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Lehigh and Luzerne counties hadn’t wrapped up their results as of Tuesday night. 

In Bucks County, the Board of Elections met remotely earlier in the day to certify more than 2,700 provisional ballots. This step required election director Thomas Freitag to provide details about 200 provisional ballots to the county’s three-person elections board, comprised of county commissioners Diane Ellis-Marseglia and Gene DiGirolamo, plus Court of Common Pleas Judge Brian McGuffin (who filled in for Commissioner Robert Harvie because state law precludes incumbents like Harvie from making decisions related to elections when they are on the ballot). 

Freitag ultimately recommended rejecting more than 100 provisional ballots (about 4 percent of the total number of provisional votes cast). The most common reason for rejecting one of these ballots: voters had requested and cast ballots at the polls for political parties different from the one for which they’re registered. 

A stack of ballots that arrived at the Berks County Office of Election Services June 4, two days after the deadline. Many thousands of ballots were late statewide, even in the seven jurisdictions covered by deadline extension orders.

Emily Previti/PA Post

A stack of ballots that arrived at the Berks County Office of Election Services June 4, two days after the deadline. Many thousands of ballots were late statewide, even in the seven jurisdictions covered by deadline extension orders.

Errors made by poll workers were to blame for another two dozen provisionals not being counted; most were turned in without the required voter identification information, while a handful lacked the accompanying affidavit that election judges and voters must sign. 

About 20 were rejected because voters’ mailed ballots had already been received and counted (in Philly, 40 “double votes” were detected, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Lai reports). Voters who didn’t think their mail-in ballots would arrive at elections offices in time were encouraged to cast provisional ballots, which may explain many of these votes. 

Several voters weren’t registered in Bucks County or, in some cases, at all, Freitag said. 

Like other counties, Bucks will send letters to voters explaining whether their provisional ballot ended up being counted — and if not, why it was rejected. The notification is required by state law, but McGuffin and other officials say they hope the explanation also helps people avoid confusion in the future. 

The number of provisional ballots cast on June 2 increased significantly in Bucks and many other counties across the state. Some voters, as noted above, cast provisionals because they were concerned their mailed ballots wouldn’t make it in time. Others (in Philadelphia, in particular) did so because they went to the wrong polling place, a result of the last-minute consolidation of voting locations to compensate for anticipated worker shortages due to the pandemic. 

Another complicating factor is that some provisional ballots must be “remade” by election staff. Some counties require it for all provisional ballots, but in most cases the remaking process is limited to ballots that were damaged in transit or by letter opening machines, or that won’t scan for other reasons. Remaking literally means that election workers copy the selections from a damaged or provisional ballot onto a new ballot that will be counted. 

Emily Previti / PA Post

Provisional ballots sealed in green bags await processing by Lehigh County election officials three days after Pennsylvania’s June 2, 2020, primary election. (

Fair election advocates are concerned about the implications for election integrity with so many ballots being remade. 

“All of these problems sort of feed into each other and multiply each other,” says Rich Garella of Protect Our Vote Philly. 

“Most of the problems we’ve seen in Philly and elsewhere … will be multiplied by higher turnout and will make these problems explode in November. And the level of scrutiny will be a thousand times as much,” he said. “If the county boards can’t prove they did things right, then we have a serious problem. It’s not just a matter of throwing more money at county election boards, it’s also a matter of forcing them to operate more transparently and more effectively.”

The Department of State has provided limited guidance to counties on how the ballot remaking process should be handled, though department officials appear to be working on new guidance for  provisional ballots and other voting procedures.

It’s unclear what sort of action the legislature could take to address provisional votes, remade ballots and many other issues that came up in the primary, said state Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks). Santarsiero was among the first state lawmakers to support allowing counties to start processing ballots ahead of Election Day (his latest forthcoming proposal would let that process start three weeks in advance). 

“I do think when you cross over to a new voting system, there are issues early on. Hopefully, it will get resolved through this primary,” Santarsiero said. “I think the issues of: ‘Are we going to count these votes in a timely way? Are we going to give voters enough time to mail their ballots in?’ Those are the two major overarching issues we have to deal with.”

 

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