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Two tiered system? Many Pa. counties didn't allow voters to cure rejected mail-in ballots

A Just the News survey of county election clerks found many didn't implement secretary of state's guidance to cure ballots, opening potential door to legal challenges.

Published: November 17, 2020 9:12pm

Updated: November 19, 2020 12:05pm

The boards of elections in at least 15 Pennsylvania counties did not implement last-minute state instructions on "curing" faulty ballots on Election Day, while at least 14 counties followed the secretary of state's advice, according to a Just the News survey that exposes a two-tiered vote counting system that could face legal challenge. 

In guidance sent to her state's 67 counties dated Oct. 21, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar advised that a voter whose mail-in ballot was rejected would be eligible to vote in person with a provisional ballot on Election Day as a way to "cure" their ballot.

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, state House of Representatives candidate Joseph Hamm and four other plaintiffs sued Boockvar over her guidance. The suit argues that individuals who submitted rejected mail-in ballots shouldn't have been given provisional ballots on Nov. 3.

Jonathan Marks, deputy secretary of state for elections and commissions, advised county election officials on Nov. 2 to inform "party and candidate representatives" about the identification of the voters whose ballots had been rejected as a way "to facilitate communication with these voters."

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State told Just the News that every county in the state received the Oct. 21 guidance. An elections official, who declined to be identified, told Just the News that there is a private group chat that includes all the directors of the boards of elections in the state, and the last-minute guidance was shared inside that group.

Just the News has reached out to the boards of elections in all 67 counties. The counties that implemented the guidance include Bedford, Bucks, Cambria, Carbon, Greene, Huntingdon, Jefferson, Montgomery, Northumberland, Philadelphia, Pike, Potter, Tioga and Venango.

The counties that decided not to follow the last-minute guidance include Lackawanna, Berks, Blair, Bradford, Armstrong, Clinton, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lawrence, Lehigh, Lycoming, Mercer, Mifflin, Perry and Wyoming.

County election officials in Adams, Chester and Columbia told Just the News that the rejected mail-in and absentee ballots were set aside and declined to comment further due to ongoing litigation.

The boards of elections in the remaining 35 counties did not respond to Just the News' multiple attempts to ask if they followed the guidance. 

After Election Day, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati called for Boockvar to resign over her handling of the rejected mail-in ballots, arguing that Boockvar "fundamentally altered" the way the state runs its elections.

"The Department changed the rules again on November 2 when they provided last-second guidance directing counties to provide information to help voters whose mail-in or absentee ballots were incorrectly completed so those voters could vote on a provisional ballot," Corman and Scarnati wrote in a joint statement.

"The late release of this 'guidance' resulted in inconsistent application across the counties — some of whom contacted voters as directed and some who did not," the state senators added. "There is no basis for this guidance in current law. The Secretary created this new process out of thin air."

Corman said during a recent press briefing that his office did not yet have the total number of counties who allowed voters with rejected mail-in or absentee ballots to cure their ballots on Election Day with a provisional ballot.

Boockvar was asked the day after the election about Lancaster County's decision not to follow the guidance on curing rejected mail-ballots.

"It is absolutely feasible and not even challenging," she said.

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