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Pennsylvania's Absentee Ballot Rules Mean Many Arrive Late

Alan Diaz
A voter hands his absentee ballot to a Miami-Dade County elections official.

Comparatively tight deadlines for absentee ballots mean Pennsylvania's mail-in votes arrive too late to be counted far more often than the national average, a newspaper reported Friday.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that 4.2 percent of the state's absentee ballots got to voting offices after the deadline to be counted in the November 2018 election, compared with less than 1 percent nationally.

The newspaper cites data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that ranks Pennsylvania second in the rate of missed-deadline rejections, behind only Delaware.

Pennsylvania's voters submitted 187,000 absentee ballots in last year's general election and 8,700 were rejected, the great majority for missing a deadline.

Absentee ballots can be rejected for reasons that include missing signatures or invalid envelopes. Nationally, just over a quarter of rejected absentee ballots are for missed deadlines.

The Inquirer said the self-reported commission figures apparently undercounted the number of Pennsylvania's late ballots by at least 1,400. Bucks County had hundreds of late ballots, but the recommission reported it as having none, as was the case for Allegheny County.

Philadelphia had more than 1,000 late ballots, but was listed as having 378. Counts for other Pennsylvania counties appeared to be accurate.

Pennsylvania voters cast just 0.6 percent of the total absentee ballots submitted nationwide last fall, but the state accounted for 7.2 percent of all late absentee ballots.

The figures concern civilian voters in the United States. There is a different process for overseas civilian and active-duty military voters.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf supports "no-excuse" absentee voting, an extension of in-person delivery of absentee ballots by three days and a week longer for the mail-in deadline.

Wolf this month vetoed a bill that would have loosened absentee voting deadlines. The bill carried $90 million to help counties buy new voting machines before the 2020 presidential election, but it also would have eliminated the straight-party ticket voting option on ballots, which Wolf said would lead to voter confusion and longer lines, while other Democrats argued it would have helped down-ballot Republican candidates.

Pennsylvania voters have until a week before an election to request an absentee ballot, which is mailed to them. A filled-out ballot must be returned by mail or in person by 5 p.m. on the Friday before an election.

That means voters have just three days between the application and submission deadlines. If mail takes two days to travel from elections officials to the voter, and then two days to travel back, the ballot arrives after the deadline and is rejected.

Election officials say that problem has been exacerbated by recent changes to postal delivery.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the state last year with a group of voters who wanted to vote absentee in November, but their ballots arrived after the deadline. The plaintiffs argue the deadlines violate the state constitution's guarantee of "free and equal" elections and equal protection rights. A panel of judges is deciding whether to let that case proceed.

The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.