KEYSTONE CROSSROADS – Pennsylvania elections officials rejected more than twice as many absentee ballots during last year’s midterm elections than they did in 2010. That year, 1.9 percent of absentee ballots were rejected compared with 4.7 percent in 2018. The rate is rising because the deadline for getting ballots counted is too early, critics said.
Since the vast majority of absentee ballots are rejected for arriving after the deadline, the ACLU is suing Pennsylvania, which has the earliest deadline in the country — ballots must arrive by the Friday before the election. The group filed the lawsuit along with nine Pennsylvania voters who claim that the early deadline disenfranchised them.
Out of the 205,559 absentee ballots submitted in Pennsylvania during the 2018 midterms, 9,741 were rejected. Those voters likely are not aware of that because they are not notified when ballots are rejected.
While there aren’t statewide numbers available on the reasons ballots were rejected in 2018, the 2014 midterms showed 85.5 percent of absentee ballots in Pennsylvania were dismissed for a missed deadline. In 2010, 91 percent of the rejected ballots were tardy.
“This will most likely continue to happen in Pennsylvania unless the date of the return is changed,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.
With the strictest absentee ballot deadline in the country, Pennsylvania requires ballot requests by the Tuesday before Election Day. During nonpresidential elections, Pennsylvania voters have until 5 p.m. on Friday — three days later — to get their ballot into an official’s hands. Any ballot that arrives after that is rejected, even if it arrives before Election Day.
The Pennsylvania Department of State points to late delivery by the U.S. Postal Service as driving the delays. As it undergoes massive restructuring, the Postal Service has fewer mail-processing plants across the country.
Previously, posted mail would go to a sorting center for processing, then be sent to election officials without much delay. Now, mail may travel several counties away — or even out of state — for processing.
That causes a delay in delivery of the ballots, even if voters post them in a timely manner. The Department of State recommends mailing absentee ballots a full week before the deadline.
And some voters who requested an absentee ballot on the Tuesday before Election Day didn’t receive it until after the Friday deadline, making it impossible submit the ballot on time.
Pennsylvania is one of 13 states without an early voting period. It also requires an excuse to vote by absentee ballot. But every other state but Mississippi gives voters until Election Day to get their ballots to county officials.
By law, only Pennsylvania residents who work outside their municipality, have an illness or physical disability, have duties related to elections, or celebrate a religious holiday may vote via an absentee ballot. The condensed absentee deadline further complicates the process for those who do qualify.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in November challenging Pennsylvania on its absentee ballot deadline, which has roots in a 1937 election code. The suit claims that county boards of elections routinely fail to deliver absentee ballots to voters in time to be returned by the Friday deadline. And that unconstitutionally disenfranchises voters who are unable to go to the polls, according to the suit.
“The Pennsylvania Election Code is still stuck in 1937, so part of this lawsuit is about ensuring that our absentee voting mechanism catches up with the 21st century,” said Ben Geffen, a staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center and co-counsel for the lawsuit.
Although Geffen acknowledged Postal Service delays, he said the issue in Pennsylvania can be solved by changing the absentee ballot deadline to Election Day.
“We think this can all be resolved by changing the deadline that’s in the Pennsylvania Election Code to make sure that people have enough time to cast a ballot regardless of any snags that may come up in the county elections boards or in the Postal Service,” he said.
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads/.