With deadline past for mail ballot requests, Pa. counties wait on 1.2 million votes

While 61% of mail-in ballots have already been returned, Pennsylvania election officials say 1.2 million still have not arrived back at county boards of election.

A secure mail ballot drop box outside Eastern State Penitentiary

One of the secure mail ballot drop boxes set up by Philadelphia's Office of City Commissioners. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

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The deadline for Pennsylvania voters to apply for mail ballots has now passed, but with six days until the election, more than 1.2 million requested ballots have yet to be returned to county elections offices.

State and county officials say alarm bells aren’t going off yet. But they’re also not out of the woods when it comes to pulling off a successful election.

“We are urging voters to return their ballots now and not wait one day longer,” said Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Department of State.

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Based on United State Postal Service guidance, she said, DOS is recommending that “ballots not be returned by mail from this point on. Instead, voters should hand-deliver their ballot to their county election office or to one of their county’s drop boxes or officially designated drop-off locations.”

Hand-delivered mail ballots are due back at county election offices by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. Thanks to a state Supreme Court decision, Pennsylvanians can also have their ballots counted if they arrive at the county office up to three days after the election — provided the ballot was postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Republicans have been unsuccessfully contesting that ruling for more than a month, and recently launched another attempt at getting it overturned.

Larry King, a spokesman for Bucks County, added that there are real benefits to getting mail ballots in early, aside from making the deadline. Namely, the longer voters wait to get their ballot in, the harder it is for counties to troubleshoot any complications.

Bucks, for instance, has opted to alert voters if there are any problems with the exterior of their ballots that could prevent them from being counted — for instance, a missing signature.

“If these things show up at the last minute, we don’t have very much time to address these issues,” he said. “It’s the first time through this process for a lot of people.”

Your county, age and party might tell a lot about your ballot status

Several counties had long lines for in-person ballot applications on Tuesday as the deadline neared, and total ballot request numbers will rise as final applications and submissions are tabulated.

But by Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Election Project’s state data-based ballot-application tracker listed Pennsylvanians had requested 3,058,418 mail ballots and returned about 61% of them.

“The fact that we’re at 61%, I mean, that’s a start,” said Pat Christmas, policy director at the good government group Committee of Seventy. “But there are an awful lot more ballots to come back in.”

The ballot return rate varies widely by county, party and age group.

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The bulk of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have received between 60% and 70% of the mail ballots their voters requested. Philadelphia County — which has gotten the most applications, with 429,450 — has 62% of them back at its election office.

The biggest outlier is Butler County, just north of Pittsburgh. Only 22.9% of its mail ballots have been returned — 8,997 of the 39,222 that residents have requested.

Bucks and Delaware are among seven counties that have fewer than 50% of their requested mail ballots returned at this point.

King said that Bucks — which at 42.7% has the commonwealth’s third-lowest return rate — is likely delayed because its biggest group of mail ballots went out “a bit later than some of the other counties,” on Oct. 12.

He estimated the county got the last of the mail ballots out the door by Oct. 16, which means nearly all of them should now be in voters’ hands.

But, he added, he’s not too worried that people who get their ballots late — even too late to put in the mail — will be disenfranchised, thanks to Bucks’ in-person mail ballot drop-off locations.

“There’s still plenty of time for more ballots to come back,” he said. “We have no reason to think that anybody who has been sent a mail ballot … won’t be able to get it back to us.”

Other trends in ballot return numbers have emerged regardless of county.

Voters 18 to 24 years old were less likely to request a mail ballot than older voters were, and the young voters were also less likely to have returned their ballots. Of 254,904 ballots requested by these young voters, 42.7% have made it back to county offices.

Voters 66 or older applied for mail ballots in much larger numbers — 1,087,866 — and have returned 72.3% of them.

The differences are even starker when comparing Republicans and Democrats. Democrats have requested 1,275,436 mail ballots to Republicans’ 394,408, and voters from the two parties have 66.2% and 50.9% return rates, respectively.

Historically, Republicans have often been more likely than Democrats to vote by mail. Christmas said in his opinion, the president’s “extremely disconcerting” anti-mail voting rhetoric is the only obvious culprit.

“Not only has it meant that more people are showing up to vote in person than really should during this pandemic,” he said, “it also means that we are right there on the cusp of an election week where, if it comes down to Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, all eyes are going to be on us.”

What to expect when you’re expecting a rough election week

It’s still not clear when Pennsylvania is going to count all these mail ballots.

More than three million ballot requests is a huge number for the state. It’s not comparable to previous years, as this is the first general election in which Pennsylvania has allowed universal, no-excuse mail voting.

After weeks of debate over whether to allow counties to begin processing mail ballots early, talks in the legislature ground to a halt. That means counties will only be able to begin opening and counting ballots at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3.

“Given the volume of mail-ballot applications and returns, the counting will take some time,” Murren said. “But we believe the overwhelming majority of ballots will be counted by the Friday after Election Day.”

Christmas said Committee of Seventy has a couple of key concerns. For one, voters who don’t get their mail ballots submitted may end up trying to cast provisional ballots at their polling places, which take more time than traditional voting and could create long lines.

Provisional ballots are processed separately from run-of-the-mill in-person votes and are counted last.

“I don’t think there’s any question, there’s going to be a spike in the number of provisional ballots cast at polling places,” Christmas said. “It’s a legitimate way to make sure a registered voter casts a ballot, but it does take some time to issue.”

He said in the days before the election, voters should just remember that they have lots of options for dropping off mail ballots in person, and that those options are safe and secure.

In Philadelphia and its surrounding counties, for instance, drop boxes and satellite offices will be open and accepting ballots through Nov. 3.

“Short story is, there is a lot of work to do, especially on the voter side, to get these ballots in on time,” Christmas said.

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