Double Trouble: Allegheny County, PA Mails Duplicate Ballots

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Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), PA is fielding questions from voters after a software problem resulted in mailings of duplicate ballots for the state’s upcoming primary. WESA has more:

Allegheny County’s efforts to encourage mail-in voting for the June 2nd primary may be almost too successful: A state database has apparently sent out duplicate ballots as it struggles to keep up with demand – although the county says no matter how many ballots come in the mail, no one will get more than a single vote.

In a release sent out late Thursday afternoon, the county’s Election Division said that a problem with the state’s SURE system, a voter registration database, has caused the printing of duplicate labels for mailing and absentee ballots. According to the release, that’s because printing orders are so large that the system is “timing out”: When an employee clears that condition, the system sends the rest of the job to the printer, while apparently also returning the job to the queue to be reprinted again.

Allegheny seems, in part, to be a victim of its own success in encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots:

The issue is “impacting only Allegheny County at this time due to the successful effort in encouraging the mail-in ballot option with residents,” the statement said. It said county workers have addressed the problem by requesting smaller print batches and monitoring processing times…

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has vigorously promoted voting by mail as an effort to limit in-person voting, and the spread of the coronavirus, during the June 2 primary. More voters in Allegheny County have requested such ballots than any other county in the state. The county said today that it had received 172,439 requests for mail-in or absentee ballots: At least as of last week, no other county had cracked the six-digit mark.

“We’ve been promoting this for months and months, just making it as easy as we can because we want to limit the amount of folks who have to go out and vote on Election Day,” Fitzgerald told WESA last week.

Both state and local officials are assuring voters that only one of their ballots will be counted even if multiples are returned:

It is not clear how many voters have received duplicate ballots, or for how long the problem persisted. A county spokeswoman said there was “no way to know” the scope of the problem.

But the statement stressed “Even if a person receives multiple ballots, only one return ballot can be counted. This is because the barcode on the label that is being used for tracking is exactly the same.”

The barcodes for the duplicate labels are identical, and each ballot is scanned when the office receives them in the mail. The system disregards any vote whose label has already been scanned. (The duplicate ballots are set aside but not counted.)

Despite the assurances, some voters are confused – and concerned:

Baldwin Township Democrat Ally Bove and her husband both heeded that call [to vote absentee]. They applied for mail-in ballots in early April, and each received one last week. Both received duplicate ballots days after they returned the first ballot.

Bove said she called the elections office to “make sure I did this right,” and to find out what she should do with the duplicate ballot. “I just wanted to make sure that it didn’t look like I tried to vote twice, knowing that crazy story about the woman in Texas that got sent to jail for fraud.”

Bove said she has yet to hear back from county. As for mail-in voting, “I still feel like it’s the safest option for what we have going on right now, but perhaps I am a little less confident in the process.”

The sudden spike in demand for absentee voting – made possible by a state law change last year – is testing the capacity of the state’s legacy statewide database:

A 2019 change in state law made voting by mail far easier – and the coronavirus has made it incredibly popular. Jeff Greenburg, who manages elections in Mercer County, told WESA earlier this month that the SURE system was “part of the bottleneck” that elections workers faced in dealing with an influx of mail-in requests. Counties have a limited number of terminals with access to the system, and a limited number of staff to verify voter information from people receiving the ballots. He worried that a crush of last-minute ballot applications would further strain the system.

“No matter what we’ve seen so far, we might not have seen anything yet,” Greenburg said.

The Department of State did not immediately respond to a WESA query about whether similar problems could crop up in other counties prompted to do large print jobs by a sudden influx of ballot requests.

The issue is raising partisan concerns about the integrity of the process:

Republican Committee of Allegheny County Chair Sam DeMarco says he first began hearing of voters receiving duplicate ballots “over a week ago.” He said that he was aware of “well over a dozen” such cases, and that he raised the issue along with several other concerns in a list sent to county officials on Monday.

DeMarco, as one of two at-large members of Allegheny County Council, sits on the county’s Board of Elections. He said he took comfort “that the bar codes were exactly the same” and thus would trigger a flag if anyone tried to use a duplicate ballot. “That should reassure people,” he said.

He said he was sympathetic to election workers, who he said had been “hit with a perfect storm.” In the past year, the office has been required to purchase new voting machines and absorb last year’s voting law changes. “Then you get hit with a pandemic,” DeMarco said.

But DeMarco says that overall, “I’m not comfortable about anything right now. We’re trying to do all this in a presidential election year, in a very partisan atmosphere. It’s important that we can demonstrate the integrity of the process to people, and right now we aren’t there.”

Obviously, this is not a situation that any local election official wants to be dealing with this close to an election; here’s hoping that Allegheny doesn’t experience any more issues like this – and that the problems don’t spread to other large counties across the Keystone State. Stay tuned …

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