This story originally appeared on WITF.
A review of late mail-in ballots in Berks County shows bilingual voters ultimately were not largely affected by an incorrect deadline date in 17,000 Spanish-language ballot instructions.
Advocates point to voter outreach efforts in the lead-up to election day as potentially minimizing the effect of the county sending out wrong information. They also fear that the incident may have harmed trust in Berks Election Services.
In all, 243 ballots were received after the Nov. 2 vote-by-mail deadline, according to county spokesperson Stephanie Weaver. The majority of those, 189 ballots, were returned a day late by the post office. Of those 189 ballots, 26 were bilingual. Nine other bilingual ballots were returned late by voters.
“By law, the late receipt of these ballots from the post office prohibits the County from being able to count them,” Weaver said in a written statement.
Latino advocacy group Make The Road Pennsylvania called on Berks to honor the incorrect deadline it sent to voters—which was not possible under the commonwealth’s election code, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Besides tardy deliveries by the post office, nine bilingual ballots were submitted late. Of those ballots, three were from voters who had received Spanish-language instructions from the county with the incorrect Nov. 18 deadline, according to Weaver.
About 2,800 of the incorrect ballot instructions went to voters in precincts that are federally designated as bilingual, according to the Associated Press.
Diana Robinson, civic engagement director for Make The Road, said the group had reached out to county leaders multiple times to request a meeting with commissioners about what she described as an “ongoing problem.”
Commissioners have not taken up the offer to meet with the group, she said.
“Why do they not want to meet with an organization and its constituents that are being impacted to discuss this matter so that constituents feel heard and know that they are taking the steps to ensure that these mistakes don’t happen again?” Robinson said.
Weaver said the commissioners do not feel a meeting with the group would change anything.
“The county has sufficiently addressed this issue in multiple public forums and responses and has instituted measures to remedy this in the future,” Weaver said. “We don’t believe there is any benefit or reason to keep discussing this issue.”
After the incorrect information was discovered, the county and Make The Road made efforts to inform voters of the correct vote-by-mail date.
The county mailed correct information to the 17,000 voters who received the wrong date in Spanish-language instructions, even though not all of those voters were Spanish speakers. Make The Road ran ads on Facebook with the correct vote-by-mail date, sent texts and called voters leading up to election day.
Make The Road also called for Berks to hire an “experienced, culturally-competent” language access coordinator to ensure voter information is correct.
The county has said it already has a bilingual outreach person under the Help America Vote Act. Commissioners also recently implemented a new proofing procedure to make sure Spanish-language materials are correct.
Commissioner Chair Christian Leinbach said in a meeting last month there was only one person reviewing the Spanish-language material.
Commissioners said the incorrect date in the Spanish-language instructions was because the country failed to completely update materials from the May 18 primary.
State Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr. called the incorrect information was an act of voter suppression. Guzman did not return requests for comment on the county’s late ballot information.
The late deadline in the Spanish-language mail-in-ballot instructions was not the only instance of incorrect information for the most recent elections.
The county also sent the wrong date for election day to poll workers, according to the Reading Eagle.
The county also sent out notices that Guzman had given incorrect advice to mail-in voters about how to drop off ballots in a newsletter to constituents.
Robinson said her group is looking at next steps on that matter, which may include contacting the Department of Justice. But beyond the back and forth with the county, Robinson said the debacle harms the public’s already tenuous trust in the democratic process.
“Next year is a huge election year…we need to ensure that we have election integrity,” Robinson said. “And right now, Berks County residents—especially the Latino Berks County residents—do not feel confident.”
Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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