Montgomery County extends deadline for accepting absentee ballots

(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Alex Macbeth said she was floored to vote in the presidential election for the first time.

“I’ve been following the elections for years, it feels like,” said Macbeth, 20. “And now I finally get a say.”

An undergraduate chemistry student at New York University, she requested an absentee ballot from her home address in Glenside, Pennsylvania, be sent to New York. A few weeks later, the ballot showed up at her parents house.

“I called Montgomery County and asked them about it,” she said. “They basically said, ‘Yeah, we messed up.'”

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Her mother drove the ballot up to New York to make sure Macbeth would receive it on time.

Allison Guerra of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, left for a business trip Thursday morning without receiving her ballot.

“I called the county and haven’t heard back,” she said. “Today I called, and it said the voicemail was full.”

In recent weeks, droves of absentee ballot snafus in Montgomery County have come to light.

Area political groups have received hundreds of calls from concerned voters who had not received absentee ballots or had received incorrect ballots, said Jim Saring, political director of the Montgomery County Republican Committee. He estimated the committee has gotten more than 20 complaints a day for the last three weeks.

In response to those concerns and a petition by the Board of Elections, Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Bernard Moore ordered the county to extend its Friday deadline to receive absentee ballots to Tuesday, Election Day, at 8 p.m.

The Department of Voter Services also extended its hours to receive absentee ballots in person at 1 Montgomery Plaza,  Suite 602, 425 Swede St., Norristown:

Friday — 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday — 9 a.m to noon
Sunday — noon to 3 p.m.
Monday — 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The office will be open Tuesday as well, and ballots must be received by Tuesday at 8 p.m., rather than being simply postmarked before the polls close. Officials urge anyone who has not delivered an absentee ballot by Tuesday to simply go to their assigned polling station.

Speaking to the press Thursday, Board of Elections member and county Commissioner Val Arkoosh said the Department of Voter Services had processed and mailed the 29,392 absentee ballots requested.

Alarm bells went off, however, when a Pennsylvania Department of State count of absentee ballot returns across the state showed the Montgomery County numbers were out of whack.

“We now have objective data on our return rate of absentee ballots, which is about 40 percent,” said Arkoosh. “What is concerning to us this morning is that our return rate is lower than what we’re seeing around the commonwealth.”

As of Thursday morning, 14,000 ballots had yet to be returned to Voter Services.

Montgomery County makes up a significant portion of the state’s votes, with the third-most registered voters in the state, behind Philadelphia and Allegheny County.

This year, the county postponed sending out ballots for an undisclosed number of days, due to uncertainty about the wording of a ballot question, which must mirror the exact language found in voting booths Tuesday.

Throughout intense questioning by reporters, Arkoosh maintained that the Department of Voter Services met all deadlines within federal voting statutes.

One possible explanation for the issues, said Arkoosh, is understaffing by the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s undergone all kinds of budget cuts and staffing cuts,” she said. “Given what some of our voters have repeated, in terms of receiving two ballots on the same day mailed … many days apart, there seems to be an issue there.”

Ray Daiutolo, spokesman for the Postal Service, said, “The District has been in frequent contact with Montgomery County election board and has received no reports of any issues.”

Commissioner Joe Gale said he believed turnover at the Department of Voter Services was part of the problem, noting that two managers left in August.

Montgomery County Judge and Board of Elections member Cheryl Austin said the issue had affected her daughter, who is studying in California, and did not receive a ballot.

“It is very disconcerting to me that others may have been disenfranchised,” she said. “However, it’s got to get fixed. This cannot happen again, and we can sit around here and point fingers at each other, but it cannot happen again.”

She said the board was meeting with staff members to determine alternative processes for what isn’t working.

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