A "significant number" of mail-in ballots issued to Lancaster County voters cannot be scanned due to a printing error, the county commissioners announced mid-day Tuesday.

The problem was discovered after 7 a.m., when the pre-canvass process began, which is the process of opening and scanning ballots. Some ballots printed by the mail ballot vendor, NPC, had the wrong identification code, according to a news release from the county. The error resulted in the ballots not being read by vote scanning machines.

At a 1 p.m. press conference at the county building in Lancaster city, officials estimated that about two-thirds of the 21,000 mail-in ballots received as of Tuesday morning from voters are affected by the error.

They said about 28,000 ballots total were sent out to voters who requested them. Voters have until 8 p.m. tonight to return their ballots to the county elections office.

Commissioner Josh Parsons said there was no evidence that any of the ballots printed for in-person voting at polling places across the county were affected by the error.

The incorrect printing happened after county elections staff had approved NPC's test ballots with the correct ID code, commissioners said in the release. Test ballots had scanned properly.

A similar issue in the 2021 primary election prompted the county to fire a previous printing vendor.

"These types of errors are unacceptable and we hold the vendors responsible," commissioners said in the news release.

All impacted ballots will be remarked and scanned, commissioners said, which is the process used last year when a similar error occurred.

Commissioner Josh Parsons said the process to fix and count the affected ballots "will probably take several days."

2021 error

A year ago, more than half of all mail-in ballots sent to voters contained an error. The vendor at the time, Michigan Election Resources, printed multi-sheet ballots in the wrong order, making them unscannable by the county's vote-tallying machines. 

Prior to that error being discovered, approximately 2,700 voters were alerted that some had received incorrect voting instructions stating that they did not need to pay postage. Additionally, approximately 100 voters in the Marietta and Mount Joy areas received incorrect return envelopes intended for another voter, leading voters to need to cancel their ballots and receive new ones.

To fix the majority of the problem ballots last year, teams of workers began marking replacement ballots on the Friday after the primary. At the time, teams of three workers -- one reading the selections from a misprinted ballot, one recording those on a correct ballot, and one observer checking the work -- were used to complete the laborious process. 

About 12,000 ballots were hand marked in that process, taking the county elections staff about four days to complete.

County Elections Clerk Christa Miller noted that the May 2021 ballot was two pages in length to accommodate the many local elections at the time. The 2022 primary ballot is only one page, which should reduce the amount of time needed to mark new ballots matching the mail-in ballots that can't be scanned.

Pointing fingers

Despite the fact that the mail-in ballot scanning error was entirely the fault of the printing vendor, Parsons and fellow Republican Commissioner Ray D'Agostino said the real fault lies with Act 77, the 2019 law that expanded access to mail-in voting.

The law has become a punching bag for Republicans at all level of Pennsylvania government. Valid concerns, such as the law's failure to give counties more time to pre-canvass ballots, are voiced alongside unproven allegations that  mail-in voting is inherently flawed and susceptible to fraud. 

Ahead of the 2022 primary, Lancaster County's commissioners voted not to install a mail-in ballot dropbox at the county building entrance, as had been done for every election starting in 2020.

Again, Parsons and D'Agostino blamed Act 77, saying the law invited fraud because voters could return other persons' ballots and not just their own, as required by state law.

No evidence of widespread voting fraud was presented when the decision was made. The ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the commissioners to force the dropbox's temporary return. A county judge concluded on May 13 that the commissioners did not follow the state's open meetings law when they decided not to use the dropbox. The commissioners convened on Monday, May 16, to vote officially to remove it again.

On Tuesday after the ballot printing error was announced, the lone Democratic commissioner, John Trescot, issued a statement dismissing his colleagues' blaming of Act 77. "We have a vote counting problem in Lancaster County today. Not a problem with missing ballots, fraudulent ballots or lost ballots. A counting problem," he said.

"What is clear is that this situation is not caused by the Act 77 voting bill," Trescot continued. "It was caused by a printer error. What can be said is that if Act 77 was improved, with 3 days of pre canvassing for example, this situation might have been avoided. 

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