by Karen Bojar
According to the PA Democratic Party, 1.26 million Democrats applied for a mail-in ballot; however, only some 520,000 Republicans did so. The dramatically lower numbers for Republicans probably reflect the mixed messages they have been getting, with the Republican National Committee in April urging Republicans to vote by mail, and Trump continuing to rail against mail-in voting.
Despite the efforts of the PA Democratic Party, for many voters the process has not gone smoothly. I am one of those voters who struggled to get a mail-in ballot. I applied online on May 6. I received an application number and thought everything was okay. I didn’t think about the election for the next few weeks as I became ill and had to undergo major surgery. Political junkie that I am, one of the first things I did when discharged from the hospital was to check on the status of my ballot application. I received the following message: “We are unable to match your information with our records.”
For two days I tried to get through to the phone numbers the Election Board had designated for questions about mail-in ballots. No one picked up the phone. When I finally got through to someone in City Commissioner Lisa Deeley’s office, I learned that my application had been rejected because there was a discrepancy between my name on my driver’s license (Mary Karen) and my name on the voter registration rolls (M. Karen). I further learned that the election Board is not notifying voters if their applications have been rejected. I thought I had this issue resolved and was told by Garrett Dietz, Supervisor of Elections that my application had been approved and my ballot had been mailed on May 22. As of this writing (May 31), my ballot has not been received.
Applying early has not ensured delivery of mail-in ballots. Chestnut Hill committeeperson, Lydia Allen-Berry reported that her “daughter applied for a ballot on March 25th, received confirmation online that her ballot was mailed on May 4th, and she still hasn’t received it. So she’s coming home from DC to vote. Hopefully, she can vote with a provisional ballot.”
My. Airy resident and candidate for Auditor General Nina Ahmad is advocating extending the deadline for the ballots to be received. According to Ahmad: “In order for no one to be disenfranchised, Governor Wolf and the Postmaster General must commit to deliver the ballots to the Board of Elections in all 67 counties and if needed extend the deadline for the ballots to be received. Additionally, there needs to be a much wider communication plan so all voters who will be voting in person know the location of their new polling places and a commitment for every provisional ballot to be counted.”
The process of voting by mail is especially challenging for elderly voters. West Philadelphia committeeperson and Chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women Vanessa Fields reported that she has given about 200 paper applications to seniors in her division. Fields noted: “I’ve found out that many elders have arthritis in their hands and impaired vision and cannot see the return address on the application. Therefore, I’m providing them with a stamped, addressed envelope to mail off the application. However, I’m concerned about their ability to follow the directions with completing the ballots once receiving them in the mail. The directions can be a little tricky. Once filling out the ballot, you have to put it in a secure envelope and then the mailing envelope. I have a video demonstrating how to complete the ballot, but many seniors don’t have an internet connection.”
Mt. Airy Resident and 9th ward committeeperson Lisa Holgash reported similar experiences: “I set up house visits with two people in my division who needed assistance because they did not have access to the internet. I have another person in my division who was sent 5 ballot applications but no return envelope.” Holgash further noted that the “technological divide in the City has been exacerbated by COVID-19.”
Vanessa Fields and Lisa Holgash are exceptionally dedicated committeepeople, but there are not enough committeepeople like them to fill the need for assistance.
I expected some glitches, given that this was the first time mail-in ballots were used on this scale, but never expected anything like this. The good news is that we have five months to fix these problems before the general election in November. There are a few remedies that everyone I spoke to agrees on:
1) Ballots should be returned postmarked by a specific date, not returned before a specific date. An individual voter is in control of when her ballot is postmarked, but when she drops off her ballot at a post office she has no control over, how long it will take for her ballot to be received.
2) All voters whose applications for a mail-in ballot were not accepted should be notified immediately that their application was rejected.
3) The time frame between the final date to apply for a mail-in ballot (May 26) and the date by when it must be received (June 2) is much too tight. Currently there are four lawsuits, one in Montgomery and one in Bucks County asking local courts to extend mail ballot deadlines in their counties and two lawsuits before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to give voters statewide an extra week to return ballots. As of this writing, there have been no court rulings. (Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf extended the deadline for ballot reception to June 9 in Philadelphia, Montgomery and four other counties.)
Voters who have experienced or witnessed barriers to participation should report them to citizen watchdog organizations such as the Committee of Seventy. We must address these issues before the critically important November election.
Karen Bojar is an author and former Democratic committee person. She lives in Mt. Airy.