There are just over two weeks until one of the most consequential elections in American history – and Donald Trump and Joe Biden are in a dead heat in Pennsylvania. Trump won the state by less than 1% in 2016, which was the narrowest margin of victory in the state in 176 years. Pennsylvania is a battleground state writ large, and so the news that 372,000 requests for mail-in ballots were rejected is ample reason for genuine concern.
According to reports, the requests were rejected because as many as 90% of them were duplicate requests. Voters were apparently confused about the process and had previously checked a box to request a mail-in ballot during the June primaries. If that many voters were unclear about the information on a voter form, someone did a terrible job writing that document with clarity. Such procedural bafflement by Pennsylvania residents about voting in this election is an unforced error made by people charged with making the process simple, straight-forward, and clear. That they should have failed at that in a year already defined by confusion and uncertainty is egregious.
PA Counties in Trouble
More than 2.7 million Pennsylvania residents have requested mail-in ballots, and the state expects a record number of ballots to be cast in this way because of COVID-19 fears and restrictions. Counties can’t begin tallying votes until November 3rd, however, which is raising concerns that the longer it takes state and election officials to count the ballots and arrive at a total, the more the state leaves itself open to misgivings among the electorate about the security and legitimacy of the process.
In Armstrong County, north of Pittsburgh, the sheer volume of calls being fielded from confused citizens has overwhelmed the voting officials, many of whom do nothing but answer the phone all day. At 73.7% when finally tallied, Armstrong County voted overwhelmingly for Trump and Pence in 2016. The widespread confusion there among voters in this election gives pause as to whether the process will yield accurate and fair results in a hotly contested state. Already, Armstrong County has spurned 25% of its 5,400 ballots as duplicates.
Estimates indicate that as many as 208,000 Pennsylvania voters sent in the rejected requests, many of them submitting multiple times. In one case, a resident sent 11 requests for a mail-in ballot. In 2018, just 4% of Pennsylvania votes were cast by mail instead of the greater than 50% of state residents who mailed their votes in during the primaries in June. As the result of a law passed in 2019, anyone is allowed to request a mail-in ballot in the state now, without having to provide a reason such as travel or infirmity. But voter education has not kept step with the state’s dramatic increases in mail-in voting, which is occasioning low-level chaos in the voting process.
Critics of Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting efforts have pointed out that other states which have established efficient vote-by-mail systems have done so by educating voters over decades while the Keystone state is trying to do the same thing in a matter of months. Montgomery and Allegheny counties are fielding as many as 5,000 and 7,000 calls a day, seven days a week respectively, to clear the confusion for voters – proof positive that a portion of the electorate is disillusioned, disheartened, or disconcerted.
President Trump has attacked mail-in voting systems as susceptible to widespread fraud. Although there are well-documented instances of this occurring and the recent precipitous increases in ballot harvesting certainly raise eyebrows, it remains to be seen whether 2020 voting is vulnerable to the nefarious actions of those who seek to privilege one candidate over the other unfairly. In the meantime, Trump’s messaging has resonated with Republicans in Pennsylvania who have requested just 30% of the mail-in ballots the state’s Democrats have.
It didn’t have to be this hard. Home Depot has been open for business throughout the pandemic in every state in the country. If shoppers could buy hammers, hoses, and hardware safely, doesn’t it follow they could vote safely? Even recommendation-shifting Anthony Fauci stated we should be able to vote safely in person. But the simplicity and expediency of in-person voting have been made unnecessarily byzantine by Pennsylvania’s efforts to establish a vast vote-by-mail campaign for 2020 too quickly and without competent oversight.
All of which suggests we are likely to wait until well after November 3rd for an official tally from the state that could well decide the 2020 presidential election.
As Bette Davis memorably declared in the film classic All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
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