Mail-in voting delay in Montco signals trouble in November

Montgomery County officials are working to resolve internal problems that contributed to 183 voters receiving absentee ballots just three days before last month’s primary, jeopardizing their ability to cast them on time.

But county officials say another factor was out of their control – a state law that gave county election offices just 30 days to prepare, print and mail ballots before the election.

The bill could cause delays in November, when Pennsylvania election officials face more voters and higher stakes in an election that could decide control of both the White House and the Senate.

State law states that counties can begin processing absentee ballot applications 50 days before the election. However, the list of primary candidates was not final until 30 days before the April primary election, which created a narrow time frame for election administrators to process and distribute ballots.

“Every day counts when the court only gives you 30 days from certification to the election,” Montgomery County Commissioner Neil Makhija, the Democrat chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said during a recent board meeting.

The shortened schedule does not guarantee that mail-in ballots will arrive behind schedule, but it does augment the likelihood of this happening due to time pressures on election offices. It also leaves no room for even normal delays in the process. If ballot access for independent candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is challenged in court before November, the appeals process could again limit the amount of time counties have.

Changes in the law before November are unlikely.

Makhija and other Montgomery County commissioners have indicated plans to urge the Pennsylvania General Assembly to change the deadlines for nominating candidates and filing appeals after this election — in hopes that future elections will give counties more time to complete and distribute ballots.

However, another wave of delays in November could damage confidence in the election, especially as former President Donald Trump continues to spread lies about Pennsylvania’s 2020 elections.

“When notices of delays come out, it just undermines confidence,” said Christian Nascimento, chairman of the Montgomery County GOP. “If you believe in the integrity of elections and want people to be as empowered as possible, you have to admit that there is a group of people in the district who don’t trust it. Therefore, extreme care must be taken to ensure that the process goes smoothly.”

What are the steps once my ballot is approved?

Once ballots are certified, election officials in Montgomery County and across the state must inspect their ballots, conduct a quality check on their systems, print the ballots and mail them to voters.

“Everything must be perfect throughout the entire operation before absentee ballots begin to be sent to recipients,” said Frank Dean, the county elections director.

This is a detailed process that can be delayed by a day or two at various stages. For example, if a formatting error is detected on any ballot, the entire checking process must be repeated. In the case of Montgomery County, primary ballots went through three rounds of checking before they could be sent to the printer, where they were then delayed due to a backlog.

“The schedules that counties have to work with shouldn’t be so short that we have to keep our fingers crossed that everything runs exceptionally smoothly in the proofreading process, at the printer and at USPS,” said Montgomery County Executive Operations Officer Lee Sołtysiak.

The U.S. Postal Service recommends that voters mail their ballot back to the election office at least one week before the election to ensure it arrives before the Election Day deadline of 8 p.m. But voters also have until a week before the election to request an absentee ballot.

“This time the delay was in Montgomery County. Next time it might as well be a different county,” said Jamila Winder, the Democrat who chairs the Montgomery County Commission.

When ballots are approved behind schedule, counties sometimes have to consider further preparation of ballots before they know exactly who will be on them, said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

“We have always seen challenges presented to candidates on the ballot, so we rely on the courts to resolve them in a timely manner, which doesn’t always happen,” she said.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is unlikely to make any changes to the schedule before voters go to the polls in November. But Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, a York County Democrat who chairs the House Committee on State Government, said the state should act to aid counties.

“If they want more time, give them more time,” Hill-Evans said, although she also added that she had not considered changing the deadlines for filing nominations.

The Pennsylvania Department of State said in a statement that the office is open to “any common sense measure that does not prevent any registered voter from casting a ballot and allows counties to finalize and mail ballots sooner.” However, the statement noted that these decisions rest with legislators.

What is Montco doing to prepare for November?

Meanwhile, Montgomery County election officials said they are working to re-evaluate their internal processes and contracts to prepare for the November election, when the stakes and turnout will be much higher.

Makhija, the board chairman, said he was meeting with district vendors about completion dates and had directed the district’s attorney to renegotiate the contracts. He also advocated allocating “significant resources” to hiring additional staff in the county’s internal voter services department.

“Now that I can make change, I will eat, sleep and breathe electoral work until every voter’s voice is heard and the 2024 general election is properly certified,” he said.

Montgomery County Commissioner Tom DiBello, a Republican who serves on the county board of elections, said he wants the county to hold regular board of elections meetings to make sure everything is on track.

“I want people to feel and have confidence,” he said.

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