Kriston Jae Bethel / The New York Times

Election workers with the Philadelphia City Commissioners office sort through ballots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on Election Day — but voting issues across Pennsylvania started weeks earlier.

November 4, 2020

Students From Pennsylvania Face Mail-in Vote Challenges

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After weeks of waiting for his mail-in ballot to arrive, Brandon Wolf ’23 finally gave up on voting absentee.

I’ve been packing all day,” Wolf said. “I’m going home for the semester just so that I can vote.”

The Pennsylvania native is not alone. Samantha Puzzi ’22 and Maddie August ’22 — also from the state that President Donald Trump won in 2016 by less than 1 percent — experienced lengthy delays and difficulties receiving their absentee ballots in Ithaca. 

This is the first year that all Pennsylvania voters are eligible to vote by mail, and the state was bombarded with ballot requests. More than 3 million ballots were requested statewide — nearly half the total voter turnout from four years ago. 

Party officials in Pennsylvania and other battleground states have inundated courts with requests to rule on cases regarding the election, especially on mail-in ballots, which have a higher demand this year.

Pennsylvania Republicans requested that the justices block the ruling made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which said absentee ballots received up to three days after Nov. 3 would still count. Much to the president’s dismay, the court was deadlocked on the Republican Party’s appeal, allowing the three-day extension to stand. 

Mail delays have been a pertinent concern surrounding the 2020 election, and recent slowdowns have jeopardized thousands of votes made by absentee ballots. As of Nov. 2, there were an estimated 29.6 million outstanding mail-in ballots and delivery rates in swing states have been significantly lower than the national average. 

Both campaigns made it a priority to spend the final days of the campaign traversing Pennsylvania, vying for the state’s 20 electoral votes. Before Trump flipped the swing state in 2016, Pennsylvania had voted for Democratic candidates in six consecutive presidential elections.

Wolf, who hails from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, registered for an absentee ballot on Oct. 6. This is his first presidential election, and considering the uncertainty of Pennsylvania’s outcome, he wanted his vote to count in his home state. 

After registering, he received a message from the Bucks County election office confirming that his request had been processed and that it should be mailed shortly. But two weeks later, it still hadn’t arrived.

He called the office, where a representative told him that there was a problem with his application because they could not verify his current address in Ithaca. 

“I shouldn’t have had to reach out to them when they were trying to verify my address,” he said. “I understand they’re trying to prevent fraud, but they should have told me the issue because the whole time my application said it had been processed and was waiting to be mailed.” 

Wolf, distrustful of the mailing system after this initial ballot mishap, ultimately decided that he would cut his Ithaca semester short to go home and vote in person.  

“What if [my ballot] gets lost in the mail?” he asked. “What if it’s not there until [Nov.] 15th? Are they going to recount? Are they going to add it to the total tally? You would think that the election would already be called by the 15th.”

Puzzi — from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, which voted overwhelmingly Republican in the 2016 presidential election — shared the “maddening” process it took to obtain her absentee ballot. 

A first time voter, Puzzi requested her ballot months in advance through the Pennsylvania voting website. Immediately, she “had a lot of problems.”

The website failed to recognize her Ithaca address and refused to let her finish the form as a result. She re-tried continuously for a few weeks to no avail.

A couple weeks out from the election, Puzzi said she “started to worry.” This time around, Puzzi filled out the form again with her home address in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, figuring that her dad would mail it to her at school to fill out. 

She was finally allowed to complete the form and received a confirmation email that the elections office was processing her information and a ballot would soon be sent to her house. But the ballot showed up at her Ithaca address a week ago, even though the voting website told her there was no USPS record of that address. 

August, although from a different county, experienced an equally cumbersome process.

She applied for an absentee ballot Sept. 4. She, along with 200,000 other voters in her home county, Montgomery County, were sent an accidental email on Sept. 21 by Pennsylvania’s Department of State stating that mail ballots had been dispatched and should arrive within 11 to 14 days. 

August’s county didn’t actually begin mailing out ballots until Sept. 30, causing confusion and anxiety among voters. Even after the Department of State mailed ballots, her ballot still never arrived. Three weeks after receiving the initial email on Sept. 21, August called her local election office, which told her that her ballot had been canceled.

The election office sent her another email on Oct. 25 confirming that it sent another ballot to her. The second ballot never arrived, however, prompting August to return to the Keystone state to cast her vote in person, like Wolf. 

But before August could vote she needed to visit the election office to receive a provisional ballot. Because her second mail-in ballot has not been formally canceled, she would have been ineligible to vote in person.

“I would have much preferred, especially in a pandemic, to be voting by mail,” she said. “I don’t want to have to be quarantined for more of school.”

Although August will be able to make up the asynchronous lecture she missed to vote, COVID-19 restrictions require her to quarantine until receiving two negative tests upon her return. She will miss out on in-person instruction and August will have to find people to cover her missed shifts and will lose a week’s worth of wages.

While for her this is merely an “extra annoyance,” she realizes that others may not be in the same position to go home with the same ease. This situation has only revealed to her the many barriers that face voters, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“I’m very privileged in that I can take a day off and drive home — I have a way to go home,” she said. “So many people don’t live within driving distance, or just can’t take off a day at work.The system is so flawed. There are so many barriers for people to vote.”