Allegheny County's efforts to encourage mail-in voting for the June 2nd primary may be almost too successful: A state database has apparently sent out duplicate ballots as it struggles to keep up with demand – although the county says no matter how many ballots come in the mail, no one will get more than a single vote.
In a release sent out late Thursday afternoon, the county’s Election Division said that a problem with the state’s SURE system, a voter registration database, has caused the printing of duplicate labels for mailing and absentee ballots. According to the release, that’s because printing orders are so large that the system is “timing out”: When an employee clears that condition, the system sends the rest of the job to the printer, while apparently also returning the job to the queue to be reprinted again.
The issue is “impacting only Allegheny County at this time due to the successful effort in encouraging the mail-in ballot option with residents,” the statement said. It said county workers have addressed the problem by requesting smaller print batches and monitoring processing times.
It is not clear how many voters have received duplicate ballots, or for how long the problem persisted. A county spokeswoman said there was "no way to know" the scope of the problem. In a Friday call with reporters, county Elections Manager Dave Voye agreed: "We don’t have a full scope of how many were mailed," he said, later adding that the county was unlikely to obtain one. He said the county had determined the issue began in late April, and was addressed earlier this week.
But the county's statement stressed “Even if a person receives multiple ballots, only one return ballot can be counted. This is because the barcode on the label that is being used for tracking is exactly the same.”
The barcodes for the duplicate labels are identical, and each ballot is scanned when the office receives them in the mail. The system disregards any vote whose label has already been scanned. (The duplicate ballots are set aside but not counted.)
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has vigorously promoted voting by mail as an effort to limit in-person voting, and the spread of the coronavirus, during the June 2 primary. More voters in Allegheny County have requested such ballots than any other county in the state. The county said today that it had received 172,439 requests for mail-in or absentee ballots: At least as of last week, no other county had cracked the six-digit mark.
"We've been promoting this for months and months, just making it as easy as we can because we want to limit the amount of folks who have to go out and vote on Election Day,” Fitzgerald told WESA last week.
Baldwin Township Democrat Ally Bove and her husband both heeded that call. They applied for mail-in ballots in early April, and each received one last week. Both received duplicate ballots days after they returned the first ballot..
Bove said she called the elections office to “make sure I did this right,” and to find out what she should do with the duplicate ballot. “I just wanted to make sure that it didn’t look like I tried to vote twice, knowing that crazy story about the woman in Texas that got sent to jail for fraud.”
Bove said she has yet to hear back from county (though Voye said Friday that the county would not prosecute anyone for returning a duplicate ballot). As for mail-in voting, “I still feel like it’s the safest option for what we have going on right now, but perhaps I am a little less confident in the process.”
But Republicans have raised concerns about potential fraud with mail-in ballots. And some elections officials in Pennsylvania have expressed misgivings about the logistics of processing a huge number of ballot applications.
A 2019 change in state law made voting by mail far easier – and the coronavirus has made it incredibly popular. Jeff Greenburg, who manages elections in Mercer County, told WESA earlier this month that the SURE system was “part of the bottleneck” that elections workers faced in dealing with an influx of mail-in requests. Counties have a limited number of terminals with access to the system, and a limited number of staff to verify voter information from people receiving the ballots. He worried that a crush of last-minute ballot applications would further strain the system.
"No matter what we’ve seen so far, we might not have seen anything yet," Greenburg said.
The Department of State did not immediately respond to a WESA query about whether similar problems could crop up in other counties prompted to do large print jobs by a sudden influx of ballot requests.
Republican Committee of Allegheny County Chair Sam DeMarco says he first began hearing of voters receiving duplicate ballots “over a week ago.” He said that he was aware of “well over a dozen” such cases, and that he raised the issue along with several other concerns in a list sent to county officials on Monday.
DeMarco, as one of two at-large members of Allegheny County Council, sits on the county’s Board of Elections. He said he took comfort “that the bar codes were exactly the same” and thus would trigger a flag if anyone tried to use a duplicate ballot. “That should reassure people,” he said.
He said he was sympathetic to election workers, who he said had been “hit with a perfect storm.” In the past year, the office has been required to purchase new voting machines and absorb last year's voting law changes. “Then you get hit with a pandemic,” DeMarco said.
But DeMarco says that overall, “I’m not comfortable about anything right now. We’re trying to do all this in a presidential election year, in a very partisan atmosphere. It’s important that we can demonstrate the integrity of the process to people, and right now we aren’t there.”
Asked whether he expected conservative groups to use the snafu in an effort to cast aspersions on the voting process, DeMarco said, “I think it’s within anyone’s rights to start asking question. When you think about how important our elections are, and we tell everyone who safe mail-in ballots are, and then people are getting ballots they didn’t even ask for."
Voye, the elections manager, was asked during the Friday press call if he had any concerns about the county's ability to handle the volume of mail-in ballot applications it was receiving.
“I do not" have doubts, he said. "We will do whatever it takes," including adding a third shift of workers to handle the requists. Still, he said later, the county had recieved 180,000 applications so far -- already eclipsing the 150,000 votes that might be expected in an uncontested presidential primary.
“Please bear with us," he said to voters who had concerns. "Our absentee section is inundated with phone calls.”
* This story was updated at 1:23 p.m. on May 15, 2020 to include further comments from county Elections Manager Dave Voye.