This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
In mid-October, Greene County, in southwest Pennsylvania, notified voters that some mail ballots for the November election listed two races for magisterial district judges, though voters were only supposed to be electing one.
Then, the county realized some mail ballots listed school board candidates in the wrong order.
And just days before the election, officials in Greene County found yet another error. Mail ballots said “vote for not more than three” candidates in the county commissioner race — potentially disenfranchising voters, since in reality, they were only supposed to choose two candidates.
Greene County’s string of errors was the most for a single county this year, but it had plenty of company. On or before Election Day for the November municipal election, 12 counties reported 16 errors, more than double the number of errors from any other election since 2019.
Election experts, as well as the Department of State, agree the increase is linked to turnover and loss of experience at local election offices.
Counties in Pennsylvania have been steadily reporting more election administration errors impacting voters’ ballots with each election since 2019, an analysis by Votebeat and Spotlight PA of data collected by the news organizations and the Open Source Election Technology Institute has found.
The errors have the potential to affect voters’ trust in elections ahead of what is expected to be a highly contentious presidential election.
At a state Senate hearing this month, state Sen. Pat Stefano (R., Fayette) asked Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt about the numerous errors, saying they “send a ripple through our faith in the system.”
“It does,” Schmidt responded. “These are all human errors that occurred. They occur most frequently, overwhelmingly, when you have new election administrators.”
Genya Coulter, senior director of stakeholder relations at the Open Source Election Technology Institute, began collecting reports of mail and in-person ballot-printing errors in 2022 after noticing an increase in news stories about such mistakes. Votebeat and Spotlight PA supplemented her data with additional incidents of election administration errors found in news reports to track the trend.
Until this year, eight errors reported during the 2021 municipal election were the high-water mark for errors in a Pennsylvania election, according to the data.
County errors this November included:
- instructions to vote for the wrong number of candidates;
- candidates or races left off the ballot;
- improper ballot return instructions;
- duplicate ballots sent to the same voter.
The most high-profile problem stemmed from a human error programming Northampton County’s voting machines that made votes for one judge appear on a ballot print-out next to another judge’s name — a debacle that brought national attention to the county.
Coulter said ballot-printing errors can shake voter trust. “You have [paper ballots] because they are a verifiable record of the election,” Coulter said. “If you’re going to audit elections after, like in a risk-limiting audit, to make sure everything is correct, what are you going to do if the ballot itself is not correct?”
‘A perfect storm’
Counties are supposed to proofread their ballots before printing for spelling, candidate order, instructional errors, or other inaccuracies. Often this is done by the election director or their deputy.
Jeff Greenburg, a senior advisor on election administration for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Committee of Seventy who previously ran elections in Mercer County, noted that the municipal ballot is usually the longest and most complex, increasing the risk of something slipping through the cracks during proofing.
“It is the one that is the most complicated even for veteran administrators,” he said. “I think that, coupled with the turnover, creates a perfect storm, so to speak.”
“In my mind,” he added, “it is directly related to the turnover in election directors.”
It’s true that many of the errors are happening in counties where the people in the top election administration positions have churned.
Greene County is currently searching for its third director this year. In 2019, the county’s top two election officials had more than 24 years of combined experience, according to records obtained by Votebeat and Spotlight PA. Both those officials left, and a replacement elections director who started this year resigned after nine months. His replacement started only two weeks before the 2023 general election and lasted a total of four weeks.
Clint Barry, chair of the Greene County GOP, said the county’s problems this year were “100% director error” and the job has gotten tougher since Pennsylvania adopted no-excuse mail balloting in 2019.
“The law is cumbersome,” he said. “I think it would take you three to four years to get yourself up to speed. The learning curve is very steep.”
Greene County Chief Clerk Jeff Marshall, who oversees the elections department, said there’s “no doubt” that training new people quickly can lead to errors. He also pointed out that this was the first year since 2019 that commissioners, who help oversee elections, were on the ballot and thus could not be involved in the election administration process.
Marshall said he is optimistic about filling the position but is concerned that applicants lack experience.
Lancaster County — which has had a string of ballot problems since 2021 — also has a relatively new director and deputy director. The current director and deputy have roughly three-and-a-half combined years of experience between them, compared to the 19.5 combined years of experience under the administrative leadership that was in place for the 2019 municipal election, during which the county had no errors.
This year the county sent out improper instructions on returning mail ballots in the November election, telling voters to insert ballots in a “white secrecy envelope” even though the provided secrecy envelope was yellow. During the May primary, its ballots instructed voters to vote for the wrong number of candidates in one race.
And Potter County — which also had multiple errors this year — has a director who began in August 2022 and had never previously administered an election. The county sent out ballots instructing some voters to vote for the wrong number of candidates. It also left a race for constable off some ballots.
‘A battle plan for disaster’
Barry, the GOP chair from Greene County, thinks part of the problem is that the Department of State does not provide enough training for local officials, and takes too long to get back to directors with answers to their questions.
“They can be bright, but they really have no training,” he said, adding that he sees a cycle where directors come in, receive little training, and burn out.
“It’s a battle plan for disaster. There’s no other way to say it.”
Matt Heckel, press secretary for the Department of State, said the agency recognizes the importance of training in light of the number of election officials who have left their jobs since 2020. It has recently hired a new training manager dedicated to working with county officials.
The department said it has made other changes to support local election officials next year, including establishing a dedicated elections training team, contacting each county to identify their needs, creating a comprehensive calendar of duties and deadlines in 2024, providing a ballot review checklist, conducting trainings on updating voter rolls, and reviewing logic and accuracy testing, among other things.
The department is also planning to hold a training on reporting election night results and provide directors with a video of basics on how to use the statewide voter registration system.
Marshall, the Greene County chief clerk, said the Department of State offers support, but there are limits to that because elections are the responsibility of counties and the agency often ends up recommending the county consult with its attorney.
“So they’ll give us guidance or suggested procedures but that clear ‘Here is what you do’ is not there,” he said.
Coulter, of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, said that jurisdictions where vote by mail is new typically see an increase in errors. No-excuse mail voting was introduced in Pennsylvania in 2019 and implemented the following year. She also stressed that in her research, she typically found that errors were quickly caught and fixed.
“Even the best election directors have ballot printing errors,” she said. “The election directors who I think really handle things the best go, ‘Hey, this happened. We’re working overtime to get you this ballot. We apologize for the error. We’ll make it right.’ I think that really goes a long way instead of just playing ostrich.”
Greene County canceled and reissued ballots upon discovering the errors, as did Potter County. Lancaster County resisted doing so and settled on allowing voters to come into the office to have their ballot reissued.
Greenburg said the best strategy from his election administrator days was to take the ballot from the last comparable election, which in this case would have been the 2019 municipal election, and begin building the ballot from that. He would advise new directors to start there.
“The more experienced we get, the less often you will see those errors,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic that we will not see a repeat of those next year.” The presidential election ballot, he said, is the least complicated.
Errors in Pennsylvania, a hotly contested swing state, tend to draw outsized scrutiny.
Luzerne County’s 2022 ballot paper shortage drew national attention and a congressional hearing. Schmidt told Politico last month, after right-wing figures picked up on Northampton’s issue, that “the broader concern is that an incident like this would be misused to undermine confidence.”
“That is absolutely a risk that could happen, especially heading into 2024, which is going to be incredibly contentious,” Coulter said. “On the other hand, is it a best practice to sweep everything under the rug and pretend everything is fine when something clearly went wrong? It’s a really delicate balance there.”
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.
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