Lebanon County’s top election official says the Nov. 3 general election went smoothly for the most part, but he thinks a little fine-tuning is in order before next spring’s primary.
In an interview with LebTown this week, Michael Anderson, Director/Chief Clerk of the Lebanon County Bureau of Elections/Voter Registration, described few polling place problems and no significant problems with the first real test of no excuse mail-in ballots.
Just less than 78% of the county’s registered voters cast 72,060 ballots in the election, which was headlined by the presidential race. 67% of those who voted did so in-person on election day, 31% by no excuse or absentee mail-in ballot, and 2% by provisional ballot, meaning a voter’s eligibility was initially questioned, but later approved.
Polling places operated smoothly on election day
Voters who showed up at the polls on Nov. 3 were strongly encouraged to fill out a paper ballot, rather than use the touch-screen voting machines.
“Honestly, I think the biggest issue was people who hadn’t yet voted in the new [paper-based ] system were surprised because they probably went in thinking they were going to vote on a machine,” Anderson said, “and they got a paper ballot instead.”
Anderson explained that paper ballots, even at polling places on election day, are now preferred. “We’re moving away from allowing anybody to use [voting machines] and keeping them for those who need them, those who have a hard time filling in ovals or have a disability.”
Because they all get scanned by the same equipment, paper ballots, whether mail-in or obtained at the polling place, are identical, except for “headers” identifying the two types.
But, “if you’re there and it’s not busy,” Anderson said, “9 out of 10 times they’re not going to say ‘no’ if you want to vote on a machine.”
The only real problem encountered all day, according to Anderson, was a ballot scanner that broke down, which was quickly replaced with one of the backups the county keeps on hand.
The high volume of ballots also caused the boxes that catch and keep them once scanned to fill to the top and start interfering with scanning. Fixing that “was as simple as opening the box and shaking it,” Anderson said. “Next time we’ll know to shake them down regularly.”
Not perfect, but no big problems counting mail-in ballots
Voters returned about 250 “naked ballots,” Anderson reported. In other words, their actual mail-in ballot was not sealed in the provided inner “secrecy envelope,” just enclosed in the outer mailing envelope. They were disallowed by the County Commissioners, sitting as the Board of Elections, as were “under 20” ballots where writing was placed on the secrecy envelopes.
Anderson said the Board of Elections considered giving these voters a chance to fix their error but, given time and manpower limitations, “the board decided to shift focus and deal with the voters who did it right.”
Mail-in or in-person: Pick one and stick with it
Many voters who requested and were issued mail-in ballots changed their minds and showed up at the polls on election day, Anderson said.
About 1,300 of these voters actually brought their mail-in ballots along. They were allowed to physically surrender them to poll workers, have them cancelled, and then vote in person. Anderson said it was simple in those cases to be sure no one cast more than one ballot.
Others showed up at the polls without bringing their mail-in ballots along, and demanded to vote in person. Those voters had to be issued a provisional ballot, which required more time and effort by poll workers.
The Election Board then had to rule on each of those provisional ballots, after election day, to be sure no voter had cast two ballots. Again, more unnecessary work.
Anderson also expressed frustration with the mail-in ballot applications that various interest groups had sent, unsolicited, to voters. Many voters, he said, thought these were coming from the voter registration office or some official government source. Many who got them thought they were actual ballots, not just ballot applications.
Six tweaks to improve upcoming elections
Anderson, who will be a member of the statewide Risk Limited Audit Work Group run by the Pennsylvania Department of State, has already sent a letter to the group, outlining five improvements he’d like to see before the next election. He added a sixth when he spoke to LebTown.
Allow “pre-canvassing” of mail-in ballots before election day
As it stands now, mail-in ballots that have been received and are sitting at the election office can’t even have their outer envelopes opened (“pre-canvassed”) to prepare for scanning before 7:00 a.m. on election day. Anderson pointed out that his employees are busy doing other important tasks throughout election day, so they can’t start opening mail-in ballots at 7:00 a.m.
And many people complained that the final count wasn’t done by election night. That’s largely because mail-in ballots couldn’t be opened until after the polls closed. “And you saw what happened,” Anderson remarked. “It delayed everything for four to five days.”
Anderson wants authority “to at least open them, get them out of the envelopes, three to five days before the election” so they can be ready to scan. “If they want us to wait until election day to actually count mail-in ballots, I have no problem with that.”
Eliminate the permanent status of no excuse mail-in ballot applications
Voters who applied for a mail-in ballot at last April’s primary election had the option of checking a box that asked to have a mail-in ballot automatically mailed to them at every subsequent election, without any further request. Many did, and, six months later, many forgot they did.
This led to confusion, according to Anderson. Some voters thought Anderson’s office was automatically sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, without a request. This led some to suspect voter fraud conspiracies.
Others who forgot that they’d put themselves on permanent mail-in status submitted brand new, unnecessary November mail-in applications, causing confusion and more work for election officials.
Unless a voter has a disability, Anderson suggests that “voters should have to fill out an application for a no excuse mail-in ballot before every election.”
The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot should be 15 days before an election, the same as the voter registration deadline
It’s currently seven days, and Anderson sees no reason why the two deadlines should be different. He says that seven days isn’t enough time to process the application, get the ballot mailed to and received by the voter, and have the voter get the ballot back by election day.
Anderson is confident that “fifteen days would eliminate the need to give an extra three days after election day for ballots to be received by us in the mail.”
Counties should be able to track mail-in ballots through the U.S. Postal Service
Anderson and his staff received many “where is my mail-in ballot?” calls as the election approached. He knew the ballot had been mailed out, but neither he nor the voter had any way to track it.
“There’s no reason – the U.S.P.S. has barcodes to track packages. That ability should be integrated into our system so, when Joe Voter calls us, and says ‘where’s my ballot?’ we should be able to say ‘we put it in the mail on this date, or it’s out for delivery, or it was delivered two days ago.'”
“Right now,” Anderson says, “there’s no trust in the system because I can’t tell you where your ballot is once it leaves our office.”
Eliminate in-person voting if you’ve received a mail-in ballot.
As discussed above, this is confusing for poll workers and leads to unnecessary work.
“Once you make a choice, you should have to stick with it,” said Anderson. “Only one ballot should ever be issued to a voter. What people did was ripped [their mail-in ballots] up, threw them away, then walked in and demanded to vote on election day.”
That results in the issuance of a provisional ballot that won’t be counted for days, and the need to double check that the person hasn’t voted twice.
“They should let people who get a mail-in ballot go to their polling place and drop it off right there,” Anderson said. “And it goes in the box the same as a ballot filled out on the spot.” Anderson repeated that the two ballots, mail-in and completed at the polling place, are identical.
But, if you’ve received a mail-in ballot and walk into your polling place on election day without it, you would still be allowed to vote by provisional ballot.
Third party mailings should be clearly labeled
Finally, Anderson would also like to clear up the confusion caused by third party special interest groups who send unsolicited voter registration forms and mail-in ballot applications to voters. He wants to require senders to clearly identify who is sending them, and that they are not coming from a government office.
This article was updated at 5:05 p.m. on Dec. 9 to clarify how Anderson would handle voters who have been issued a mail-in ballot but show up to the polls without it and demand to vote in person. Anderson stressed throughout his interview that he favors giving all voters the benefit of the doubt and that being prevented from casting a ballot should only be a last resort.
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