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From the archives 2020

Upwards of 100,000 provisional ballots in Pa. could further delay a winner being named

by Tom Lisi for Spotlight PA |

Three election workers put provisional ballots in the hopper at the 5th and 9th division of the 26th Ward after the polls closed at the polling place at Barry Recreation Center, in South Philadelphia, on Election Day.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Philadelphia Inquirer

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.

HARRISBURG — Those across the nation eager for a winner to be declared in Pennsylvania might have to wait a little longer because of a flood of provisional ballots, most of which are only now being counted in a process that takes a lot more time than tallying in-person or mail votes.

As of Friday morning, 56 of the state’s 67 counties reported about 85,000 provisional ballots cast based on only a partial count, a Pennsylvania Department of State spokesperson said. House Speaker Bryan Cutler told reporters Friday he’s told the number could top 100,000.

Provisional ballots are cast when a voter’s eligibility is in question. And so far, 2020 looks like it might be a record year, owing mostly to the state’s expansion of no-excuse mail voting.

Any voter who requested a mail ballot but did not receive it — or who forgot or lost their ballot or envelopes — could still vote at the polls on Election Day using a provisional ballot. There were also reports on Election Day that some voters were told to cast a provisional ballot even if they brought their entire mail ballot to the polls, which should have allowed them to vote in person.

Usually, county officials do not review provisional ballots until after in-person, mail, and absentee ballots are counted. That’s why many counties will not begin until after 5 p.m. Friday, the current deadline to accept mail ballots sent by Election Day. Late-arriving mail ballots are being segregated because they are subject to a pending U.S. Supreme Court case.

But at least one county got a jump on the provisional counting process. York County officials opted to start reviewing provisional ballots Friday morning. That means workers will have to cross-reference those ballots with any that arrive by 5 p.m., York County spokesperson Mark Walters said.

York County officials will need to process 5,375 provisional ballots, according to Walters. That’s about 22 times more than in 2016.

Unlike mail ballots, which have scannable barcodes that keep track of where they are in the canvassing process, provisional ballots need to be segregated and processed individually. State law requires counties to finish processing provisional ballots by next Tuesday.

“Nothing about the provisional process is easy,” Jeff Greenburg, regional director at the National Vote at Home Institute and a former Mercer County elections director, said.

Like mail ballots, workers remove a provisional ballot from a secrecy envelope and scan it into a machine. But it’s the administrative process that comes before and after that is so time consuming, Greenburg said.

First, county workers have to investigate each ballot and make sure the voter is registered and eligible to vote. They also have to make sure the individual did not already vote. Once the vote is recorded or set aside, county workers have to enter the outcome of each review for every ballot into a state web portal that allows provisional voters to look up the fate of their ballot.

“It took our county a day and a half to do a little over 8,000 mail-in ballots in June,” Greenburg said. “It took us two and a half days to do 650 provisionals, because of the labor intensive work that’s required.”

In his previous 13 years as election director in Mercer County, Greenburg estimated his office received about 200 total provisional ballots in that entire time.

Counties that saw a large increase in provisionals still have hours of work ahead of them. Walters said York County has seven full-time staffers in the election department and has commissioned close to 100 other county employees to finish counting the votes.

“We’re prepared to go through the weekend,” Walters said.

Ray Murphy, state coordinator at Keystone Votes, said a large number of provisional ballots typically indicates a “systemic issue.” He referenced the 2012 election, when Philadelphia experienced problems with its voter database.

The increase this November was largely driven by the 2019 enactment of the state’s mail ballot law.

In an effort to limit the effect mail voting would have on provisional ballots, lawmakers passed a new rule that allowed voters on Nov. 3 to bring their mail ballot with them to the polls, have it spoiled, and then vote in-person through the normal process.

Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said she heard issues arise in counties where poll workers may not have received proper training about how to spoil a mail ballot at the polls, and directed voters to vote provisionally when they didn’t have to.

“Where that’s the case we certainly need to increase poll worker training and make sure that everybody is following the law as it’s written,” Almeida said. “I don’t think it was malicious or anything. It’s just there were a lot of new rules this year, there were a lot of new poll workers this year.”

Making things a bit more complicated, a new state appellate court ruling issued Friday directs counties to set aside provisional ballots cast by voters who were told there was an issue with their original mail ballot. These so-called “cured” ballots have become a target for state Republicans and President Donald Trump.

Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA contributed reporting.

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