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No one seems to know why 268 Lancaster County mail-in ballots were delayed

  • By Tom Lisi/ LNP | LancasterOnline
Election volunteers pre-canvas mail-in ballots inside Lancaster County Government Center in Lancaster Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

 Andy Blackburn / LNP | LancasterOnline

Election volunteers pre-canvas mail-in ballots inside Lancaster County Government Center in Lancaster Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

The 2023 municipal election may have been the first one in years, perhaps decades, in which Marvin Stouffer, 72, did not tally a vote.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Willow Valley Communities resident signed his ballot Oct. 29 and put it in the mail shortly thereafter. He made no clerical mistakes, such as forgetting to sign a declaration on his return envelope. And according to the postmark printed on his return envelope, his ballot made it to the U.S. Postal Service’s Harrisburg mail-sorting center within a day, on Oct. 30.

What happened next remains a mystery.

Stouffer’s ballot, along with 267 others with the same day’s Harrisburg postmark, were not delivered to the Lancaster County elections office for another two weeks, arriving on Nov. 13, according to county officials.

An automated alert sent the next day from the Pennsylvania Department of State’s voter notification system told Stouffer his ballot had been received and rejected for arriving past the Election Day deadline of Nov. 7 last year.

“I felt sufficiently bad about it that I decided that, at least for a little while, I’m just going to have to vote in person,” Stouffer said.

Through a public records request, LNP | LancasterOnline inspected and recorded the names of all 268 voters whose ballots were affected by the issue.

LNP was able to make contact with 19 of the 268 affected voters. Many said they did not know their ballots, all postmarked in Harrisburg on Oct. 30, were not delivered to election officials until a week after Election Day. Some, like Stouffer, said they would vote in person this year or drop off their ballot at the county elections office, rather than rely on the Postal Service.

Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, sent a letter to Lancaster County asking for more information about the incident.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania sent questions to the Postal Service “for clarity on the issue,” according to a spokesperson. He asked what type of investigation the Postal Service is conducting.

Casey asked, “Will the local, regional or national changes aimed at preventing this from happening in the future be made public at any point?” his spokesperson said.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, through his spokesperson, Eric Reath, had tough words for the Postal Service in an email statement.

“Rep. Smucker believes that everyone who lawfully casts a ballot in an election should have their vote tallied and is frustrated that a number of voters in Lancaster County were denied having their voices heard through the egregious failure of the United States Postal Service,” Reath said.

Smucker declined to say whether he inquired about the issue, citing a 1974 law that bars federal officials from releasing records that include personal information. LNP | LancasterOnline did not ask for any personal information or records.

No culprit, no apparent movement

The home addresses, mailboxes and post offices where the 19 voters who spoke with LNP dropped off their ballots span the county, with no obvious geographic pattern.

Mike Stephenson, president of the Pennsylvania Postal Workers Union, said all first-class mail from Lancaster County is processed in Harrisburg, something the union has opposed because it adds to the time it takes to deliver mail.

“If I live in a row house in Lancaster and I wanted to mail a birthday card to the house I’m attached to, it would have to go to Harrisburg and then come back,” Stephenson said. “So, instead of being able to inform them it’ll get there tomorrow, it’ll take three to five days, normally five days.”

Meanwhile, the Postal Service, through a regional spokesperson, has offered few details on its efforts to find answers on what caused the delay. In a Jan. 25 email, USPS regional spokesman Mark Lawrence repeated earlier statements that the Postal Service was taking the issue seriously.

At a board of commissioners meeting in January, Lancaster County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said the Postal Service told county officials that its investigation so far had turned up no satisfying answers.

According to D’Agostino, the Postal Service also pledged to take an “in-depth” look at its procedures for mail-in ballots, given expectations that voter turnout will be significantly higher during the year’s presidential election cycle.

When asked to confirm D’Agostino’s comments about a Postal Service investigation and in-depth review later this year, Lawrence declined to comment, saying in an email, “We have no further information at this time.”

Postal workers contacted by LNP said they had no knowledge of a Postal Service investigation.

Kim Miller, a local Pennsylvania Postal Workers Union leader representing workers in Harrisburg, said she was not aware of the delayed Lancaster County ballots until a reporter raised the issue.

Miller said she asked a manager at the Harrisburg facility about the matter and was told that the manager also was unaware of the problem.

“That’s a manager of distribution and operations who was unaware of any kind of mail not being accounted for,” Miller said.

She said the Postal Service mail-delivery system showed no delays for Oct. 30, the day all 268 ballots in question were recorded as arriving in Harrisburg, according to Miller. The system also showed the volume of first-class mail passing through Harrisburg was unusually low.

Miller, a 23-year veteran of the Postal Service, said the fall and holiday seasons are usually a very busy time for letters and cards making their way through the mail. But not this past year, she said, which makes the 14-day journey of the 268 ballots even more confounding.

The 268 ballots represent about half a “tray” of first-class mail, Miller said, the term the Postal Service uses for the bins in which mail is sorted for delivery.

The Postal Workers Union has been outspoken about its distrust of Postal Service plans to consolidate mail sorting operations into larger regional plants, Miller said. The plans are supposed to cut costs and increase the efficiency of the mail system, but Miller and Stephenson said the consolidations have made mail delivery slower in general.

In the coming weeks, letters from Lehigh County will be routed through Harrisburg, too.

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Voters react

Susan Weaver, 78, of Manor Township, said she called the county elections office after being alerted that her ballot had arrived late and was not counted.

“The woman was very kind, very gentle, but she basically said, ‘Your vote didn’t count,’ ” according to Weaver. “I did not pursue it. I just thought there’s much crazier goings-on” when it comes to election-related controversies.

Weaver said the experience has only increased her stress about the upcoming presidential election this year. “I will be hand delivering mine to the office, and I will stand in line for hours if I have to, but that’s the only way I really trust that it will get delivered (now),” Weaver said.

Jacob Yealy, 31, of Lancaster city, said he didn’t try to contact anyone after getting a notification that his ballot was rejected. “It’s a bummer, but I think it goes to show that our public systems need better funding.”

Not all mail-in voters in Pennsylvania receive updates on the status of their ballots as they get processed by the elections staff. Notifications are opt-in and require voters to provide an email address or phone number to receive updates.

Arleen Monteleone, 74, of West Lampeter Township, said she didn’t know her ballot was rejected or delayed until she was contacted by a reporter. She said she left her ballot in her home mailbox as she always does.

“Someone better do something because by the time the next election comes, whatever’s happening better be taken care of,” Monteleone said.

Democrats overrepresented

Registered Democrats, who have been voting by mail in greater numbers since no-excuse mail-in voting was introduced in Pennsylvania in 2020, sent about 62% of the 268 delayed ballots, according to an LNP | LancasterOnline analysis. In Lancaster County, registered Democrats make up only 32% of the electorate.

Meanwhile, 29% of the delayed ballots came from Republicans and the remaining 7% came from independent and third-party voters.

The Lancaster County Democratic Committee filed a protest with the Postal Service after LNP | LancasterOnline’s initial reports on the delays, according to committee Chairman Tom O’Brien.

“They have contacted us saying they are looking at it,” O’Brien said. The Postal Service did not provide a time frame, O’Brien said, adding that the committee plans to contact USPS again if the agency fails to follow up by early February.

Democratic officials in other parts of Pennsylvania are not aware of any other mail-related problems in last year’s municipal election, O’Brien said.

Meanwhile, state and national Republican parties are stepping up their voter education efforts to encourage greater use of mail-in ballots, a campaign that could further boost the total volume of ballot mail this fall.

Kirk Radanovic, O’Brien’s Republican counterpart, did not respond to a request for comment.

Staff Writer Jaxon White and reporters Sarah Nicell and Nate Willison, who write about campaign finance for LNP | LancasterOnline, contributed to this report. Their work is funded by the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund. For more information, or to make a contribution, please visit

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