York County won't allow 'curing' of mail-in ballots, plans hand count

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York County elections officials plan to hand count ballots cast at three random precincts on Thursday, a process that will be in addition to the standard electronic tabulation on Tuesday night after votes are cast in the hotly contested midterm election.

Chief Clerk Greg Monskie said county staff will draw the precincts from a hat Thursday morning in front of poll watchers and the media. He confirmed what the commissioners previously announced — that the precincts selected would include one from the city, one borough and one township.

"The whole process starts at 10 a.m. on Thursday and will continue until complete," he said. "The ballots from the precinct will first be separated by vote cast, then counted by hand, then machine counted to confirm."

Monskie also said the county will not allow for the "curing" — or fixing of minor errors, such as dates — of mail-in ballots. Instead, the public must check the status of their ballots online and, if there's a problem, vote in person using a provisional ballot.

Last month, President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said the decision the hand count some of the county's ballots was made after a county meeting with Audit the Vote PA, a group that purports to fight for election integrity. The same group has organized events featuring current Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Doug Mastriano.

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Amid increasing nationwide pressure by election deniers, several counties in the swing states of Arizona and Nevada announced plans to hand count all of their ballots, in addition to using electronic voting machines.

In York County, Monskie said the hand counting will be done by staff from the elections office. The results will be presented at a public meeting as well as appended to the county's official certification to the Department of State.

If the electronic and hand counts don't match, Monskie said they'll repeat the process from the start.

"If still different, we will have to take steps to figure out why," he said.

Hand counting could add a substantial amount of time to what is already anticipated to be an anxious wait for election results. They also leave open a greater possibility of human error compared to the standard machine counts.

“Machine counting is generally twice as accurate as hand counting and a much simpler and faster process,” said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University who has conducted research on hand counts.

In one study in New Hampshire, he found poll workers who counted ballots by hand were off by 8%. The error rate for machine counting runs about 0.5%, Ansolabehere said.

Also, hand counting can delay results. Depending on jurisdiction and staffing, it could be days, weeks or even months.

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In Cobb County, Georgia, after the 2020 election, a hand tally ordered by the state for just presidential votes on about 397,00 ballots took hundreds of people five days. A county election official estimated it would have taken 100 days to count every race on each ballot using the same procedures.

"All the data shows it is less accurate to do a hand count," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told NPR. "What you're really asking beleaguered and tired election judges to do at the end of a very long day is to not just do one hand count; if there are 30 contests on a ballot, you're asking them to do 30 individual and separate hand counts. And people are people. They get tired, they make mistakes."

Why did York County choose to pursue a hand count?

“It’s really as a courtesy; it doesn’t change anything,” President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said on Oct. 19 about the hand count. “If we want to audit the work we do, that is certainly within our purview. We’re doing a hand count audit of some precincts, so that’s certainly well within the Election Code.”

York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler, top left, speaks as five York County recipients are inducted into the Pennsylvania Voter Hall of Fame, for voting in 50 at least 50 consecutive general elections, during a ceremony at York County Administrative Center in York City, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Earlier this year, Audit the Vote PA was involved in an effort to remove York County's electronic voting machines. Ultimately, that attempt failed to gather the nearly 9,000 signatures necessary to bring the issue before York County voters.

That referendum attempt raised unsubstantiated claims related to the county's Dominion Voting Systems machines.

York County has been using Dominion machines exclusively since 2019. It currently has 180 Election Day machines that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as 245 other Election Day machines and six high-speed scanners. Several of the machines won't be deployed on Tuesday but instead will serve as backups.

In the days after the 2020 election, Wheeler issued a statement saying the county hadn't had any issues with the Dominion voting machines and that claims about votes being switched were "unsubstantiated."

Dominion voting machines have repeatedly been tested across the country in response to fraud allegations by 2020 election deniers. So far, those claims have never been substantiated.

Jennifer Reaver, of Hanover, drops of her ballot ahead of Election Day at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

In El Paso County, Colorado, for example, a test of the county’s equipment — required by law before a recount — found no issues, county officials and Dominion Voting Systems told The Associated Press.

York County, on the advice of its legal counsel, rejected efforts to put the question of its use of electronic voting machines on the ballot.

"The Supreme Court determined that local referendums on the continued use of an electronic voting system are no longer a valid option in municipalities because they were overruled by the higher authority of the requirements of the federal HAVA and the state constitutional law," county solicitor Michelle Pokrikfa said in a letter sent to the Board of Elections.

Meanwhile, voters must also navigate murky guidance when it comes to mail-in ballots.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that mail-in votes do not count if they are “contained in undated or incorrectly dated outer envelopes,” then supplemented that with a follow-up order on Saturday that specified the allowable date range for mail-in and absentee ballots.

Ballots without properly dated envelopes have been the topic of litigation since mail-in voting was greatly expanded in Pennsylvania under a state law passed in 2019.

Mail-in ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, so at this point officials are urging people who have not done so to deliver them to elections offices or drop boxes by hand.

York County will run a curbside drop-off event for mail-in ballots during voting hours, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., on Election Day outside the York County Administrative Center, 28 E. Market St. in York City.

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York County will segregate vote-by-mail ballots that are undated, unsigned or dated with an incorrect date.

"Those ballots will remain segregated until such time as the courts direct if and how they should be counted," Monskie said.

Monskie said the county would not allow for "curing" of mail-in ballots, or the allowance of fixes to minor errors such as an incorrect date or lack of security envelope. Instead, the county will cancel those ballots and allow voters to use a provisional ballot in person at their polling place. Voters can track absentee or mail-in ballots at www.pavoterservices.pa.gov/pages/ballottracking.aspx.

Democratic Party of York chairman Chad Baker decried the decision by York County not to input rejected ballots into the state system.

"This means that those voting by mail, predominantly Democratic voters, will not be contacted until Election Day that their ballots have been rejected and that is only true if their email address is on file with the county," Baker said. "If there is no email address, the voter will not be contacted."

To find your polling place, visit the York County Elections website at https://yorkcountypa.gov/503/Elections-Voter-Registration. Polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday; if you are in line at that time, do not leave the line as you will be allowed to vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.