With a larger-than-ever number of requests for mail-in ballots, ceaselessly ringing phones in the county elections office, and mailing problems in other Pennsylvania locales, some Butler County voters are, at least for the moment, left to wonder where their ballots are.
Aaron Sheasley, county elections director, said the county has received more than 30,000 validated ballot applications and has sent out close to 20,000 ballots since it started mailing them Oct. 2.
“Ballots are being processed. They're being sent out. People are receiving them because we're getting back the ones they've voted on,” he said. “There are still a lot to go out yet.”
Despite the reams of mailings that have already departed the county's Bureau of Elections, some voters haven't received their ballots, and some are calling in to inquire about them.
There are two likely causes for the confusion: the natural limitations within the bureau to manually confirm information and send out a ballot or an apparent bug within the online ballot tracker.
Carol Pry, of Butler Township, and Tom Muscatello, of Concord Township, both signed up during the primary election cycle to receive mail-in ballots for all subsequent elections — which, they thought, would put them near the top of the list to receive their ballots.
But now, nearly two weeks after the county Bureau of Elections began sending out ballots, neither has received one.
“I had no problem in the primary, and I was able to track my ballot. They sent me a confirmation number that my ballot was received and counted. It was seamless,” Muscatello said, later adding the current delay is “disappointing at this point.”
Similarly, Pry called the office late last week, she said, at which time she was told she would be one of the first to receive a ballot due to her having signed up to receive mail-ins during future elections.
“I'm getting a little bit alarmed about it, not counting the fact that I didn't hear where you could even take your ballots into the courthouse,” she said. “My husband and I both (signed up for future mail-in ballots) at the last election, the primary, and we checked the box mainly because of the coronavirus and who knows what the heck is going to be going on about it, and I don't want to be out there standing in line.”
Process takes time
Sheasley said the office sends out ballots in the order in which applications are received, calling it the “only fair way to do it.” But, he added, it's a process that takes a lot of time by its very nature.
“A human has to look at every application. They may come to us by mail or they may come to us electronically, ... everything comes to a terminal here, and our staff has to look at that manually,” the director said. “It's a human process. That's a safety feature, to make sure we cross-check every bit of information.”
Everything from ensuring that addresses match the one on the voter's registration to making sure the voter hasn't already requested a ballot takes time, Sheasley said. When everything is validated, the bureau prints labels and makes sure the ballot is the correct one for the voter's registered precinct.
Sheasley estimated those who have signed up to permanently receive ballots would receive them in the next few days.
Unlike some other counties, Butler doesn't contract with a mailing service to send out the ballots.
Sheasley said he sent a test envelope from Butler that arrived in Cranberry Township in two days, with a return letter arriving in three.
“The mail side of it is OK,” he said.
Flooded by calls
One bottleneck that may be prevalent within the system is the number of phone calls the office receives. Sheasley said the office receives seemingly nonstop phone calls from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Because they were off during the weekend and for the Columbus Day holiday Monday, he added, the office was able to send out roughly 10,000 ballots Tuesday morning, far exceeding the approximately 1,000 ballot average the office has had.
Muscatello said he asked the office when he called if it seemed to have enough manpower for this seemingly unprecedented wave of mail-in ballot requests. He was told yes. Still, he said, it seems to be a big job.
“I'm sure that the election bureau's working their tails off,” he said.
Another issue is the online tracking system implemented by the state.
Laura Humphrey, deputy director of the Department of State's press office, said the tracker “may not reflect precise information,” saying that's dependent on when and how counties update information.
“We are working to remind and train the counties to make sure they are accurately triggering information in (the tracking system) at the time most consistent with accurate tracking,” Humphrey wrote in an email. “As more ballots are mailed, the tracker will more accurately reflect each county's activity and the status of individual voters' ballots.”
Sheasley said the problem began in earnest with an update to the system last week, which started showing the date on which a ballot was mailed.
“The state pushed out an update that changed the ballot mailed on (the) date to the same date that the application was processed and the label was printed. What they're seeing online is not accurate,” he said. “They think their ballots are lost in the mail someplace, and that's not the case.”