Pennsylvanians abroad run into online roadblocks for absentee voting

Melanie Manuel, left, and Chris Thomas on Portobello Road, just a block from their Notting Hill flat in London. Like thousands of other Pennsylvanians living abroad, Manuel and Thomas were initially blocked from applying for their absentee ballots because the Pa. Department of State website can’t be accessed from a foreign country (Jim Saksa/WHYY)

Melanie Manuel, left, and Chris Thomas on Portobello Road, just a block from their Notting Hill flat in London. Like thousands of other Pennsylvanians living abroad, Manuel and Thomas were initially blocked from applying for their absentee ballots because the Pa. Department of State website can’t be accessed from a foreign country (Jim Saksa/WHYY)

Melanie Manuel traded Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood for Notting Hill two years ago, taking a job at the American School of London.

She spoke to a reporter while walking down Portobello Road, one of the city’s most iconic street markets. It’s just a block from her flat in London, and Manuel was hunting for a Halloween costume. On Portobello Road, you can find everything from antiques and artwork to knickknacks and knock offs – you can find some bedknobs and broomsticks, too.

But there’s one thing Manuel can’t find in London: her absentee ballot.

“When I clicked on the [Department of] State site, I was sent to a page that had an error that said that it was blocked for security reasons, so I couldn’t actually access my ballot,” she said.

Polls suggest Pennsylvania voters are more excited to participate in this midterm election than any other in modern history. That seems to also be the case among Americans living abroad, but many Pennsylvanian expats like Manuel have run into the same roadblock trying to access absentee ballots: The Department of State website can’t be accessed from a foreign country.

“I emailed the address on the error message, but I didn’t hear back from them for almost 36 hours, and time was ticking because I had to submit it by the deadline,” Manuel added.

The Department of State told the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, which first reported this story, that it blocked access to absentee ballots from foreign IP addresses as a security measure.

Manuel and her partner, Chris Thomas, are among a few thousand Pennsylvanians living abroad who have run into trouble trying to vote this year.

The department has a workaround, but Thomas, who works in digital marketing, says it’s needlessly complicated.

“If they know that they’ve put limitations on IP addresses, and you can’t log in from abroad, they should build that into the process design and not create an unneeded roadblock for somebody to get their absentee ballot,” Thomas said.

After encountering the error message, Pennsylvania voters abroad are directed to contact the Dept. of State help desk by either calling 1-866-472-7873 or emailing STSVCSURE_Helpdesk@pa.gov. The agency will then email a ballot.

Thomas found the fix ironic, because it’s arguably less secure. “You’ve created a situation where if someone wants to get in, they’re going to get in. It doesn’t come down to limiting IP addresses and it doesn’t foil a would be hacker. This just foils your everyday user that doesn’t understand technology.”

In the end, the couple managed to get their absentee ballots by contacting the Philadelphia City Commissioners, who serve as the county board of elections.

While the Department of State eventually responded to their inquiries, the local officials were far more helpful, Thomas said.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that has made it difficult to vote abroad. Expatriates have run into online roadblocks trying to get absentee ballots from Georgia, New Mexico, and Vermont, among others.

The deadline to register for absentee ballots is Tuesday, Oct. 30th at 5 p.m. Manuel said she was worried that other Pennsylvanians abroad who might have waited until the last second to request their ballot might get shut out.

“I’m set to go now, but I had to put a lot of effort into getting my ballot, which I luckily had the time to do, but I’m sure there are people out there who hit the same roadblock and didn’t have the time or know how on how to get an alternate ballot,” Manuel said. “So, I’m sure there are going to be people who wanted to vote that weren’t able to.”

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