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From the archives 2020

Reports that vote counters in Pa.'s Allegheny County are taking the day off are misleading. Here’s the truth.

by Tom Lisi for Spotlight PA |

Mail-in ballots are sorted and counted by workers on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020, at Northampton County Courthouse in Easton, Northampton County, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Spotlight PA)
Matt Smith / For Spotlight PA

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

You may have seen national reports that Allegheny County is taking the day off from counting 35,000 remaining mail ballots. Those reports are misleading.

Because a mailing company sent 29,000 ballots to the wrong voters, Allegheny County cannot begin processing those votes until Friday after 5 p.m.

That’s laid out in a court settlement between the Allegheny County Board of Elections and two Republican congressional candidates, who sued elections officials in October over their handling of the mailing error. Under a separate state Supreme Court ruling, counties can accept and count mail ballots that arrive by 5 p.m. Friday — making it the current return deadline.

The mailing error affecting the nearly 29,000 voters stemmed from a clerical error by a mailing vendor called Midwest Direct, as Spotlight PA and Votebeat previously reported. In a batch of mail sent to Allegheny County voters on Sept. 28, a ballot intended for one voter was accidentally sent to the address of the voter next on the mailing list, election officials said in October.

Election officials ordered corrected ballots to be mailed to each affected voter, and established an ad hoc system to identify and segregate any ballots from those voters when they arrived at the county’s facilities. The system is designed to ensure that only one ballot from each voter is counted, elections officials said.

Another 6,800 uncounted ballots in Allegheny County have issues that need to be reviewed by a special board that meets Friday.

“They got damaged in the mail, they got damaged or cut in the machine process, maybe there wasn’t a secrecy envelope,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

A returns board, sworn in by the county Board of Elections, is required by state law to meet three days after Election Day to review ballots with potential problems, Fitzgerald said. Allegheny County’s returns board will convene at 9 a.m. Friday.

Late Wednesday night, county officials announced the elections division would not be canvassing any votes on Thursday but would be doing “administrative work.”

“Today what our workers are doing is they’re preparing for tomorrow,” Fitzgerald said: organizing and setting up for the review process.

“There’s no day off for the workers in the elections board,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald noted county officials also have to process and count mail ballots received between Election Day and 5 p.m. Friday — about 525 collected as of Wednesday — and a larger-than-usual number of provisional ballots.

The county processed about 5,000 provisional ballots during the primary, Fitzgerald said. He estimated the county could see between 10,000 and 15,000 from Nov. 3.

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