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Worried your mail-in ballot could arrive late? Here's what our test of Lancaster County's postal system found [video]

An LNP | LancasterOnline experiment has confirmed what election and postal officials have been advising:

Voters requesting and filing mail ballots should not procrastinate if they want to be sure their vote is received in time to be counted in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Applying for a mail ballot at least two weeks before the election — and mailing it back at least a week before the election — would be prudent, our experiment indicates.

To test the local mail delivery system, we recently sent 150 “mock ballots” from 50 locations around the county to a post office box in the same downtown Lancaster post office where official mail ballots will be received by county election officials.

All of our envelopes arrived, and 97% were delivered within three days. But one envelope took four days to arrive, one took six days and two others took a full week. And of course, our experience in late August is no guarantee of ballot delivery times in the final weeks before the election as mail volume surges.

 (Use the interactive map below to see the average mail delivery time for your area. Story continues below)

A problematic deadline

Under current law, voters can apply for mail ballots up until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27, and completed ballots must be received by the county by 8 p.m. on election day, one week later.

Here’s why that time frame could be a problem:

Counties are required to process mail ballot applications and send them out within two days. Add another two or three days for postal delivery to the voter, and two or three days to mail it back, and the chances of missing the Nov. 3 deadline could be significant for those requesting ballots shortly before the deadline.

“If you’re applying the last day, there’s just no way we can guarantee it will get (mailed back) in time,” said Lancaster County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, who chairs the county’s election board.

The U.S. Postal Service, meanwhile, says it will be committing additional resources to prevent delivery delays of election mail. But in a recent postcard mailed to its customers it advises, “We recommend you mail your ballot at least 7 days before Election Day.”

Option to hand deliver

As a result of the tight time frame, county officials are encouraging any mail voters concerned about postal delivery times to hand deliver their ballots to the elections office at 150 N. Queen St. in downtown Lancaster. On Election Day, the office will be open until 8 p.m. to receive hand-delivered mail ballots.

A mail voter can only deliver his or her own ballot to the office, and the county is not currently planning to have a “drop box” at the building’s entrance as it did in the spring primary, county officials said.

In the primary, 305 mail-in ballots and 140 absentee ballots arrived too late to be counted in Lancaster County, according to election officials.

Getting ballots to voters

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 is expected to be a record year for mail voting locally and across the nation. As of Sept. 9, nearly 64,000 mail ballot applications had been processed in Lancaster County, according to local election officials, who are planning for up to 125,000 such applications from among the county’s 336,000 registered voters.

Mail ballots will be sent out the week of Sept. 28, and voters should begin receiving them on Oct. 2 and 3. Additional requests will continue to be processed as they are received, up until Oct. 27.

Changes proposed

The issue of mail delivery times during the election gained attention last month when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy notified the state that the postal service might not be able to deliver all ballots in time.

In response, proposals are pending in Pennsylvania to either allow more time for mailed ballots to arrive, or to set an earlier deadline for applying for mail ballots.

After DeJoy’s warning, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar petitioned the state Supreme Court to allow mail ballots to be accepted if they arrive late, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

Wanda Murren, a department spokesperson, didn’t say whether there was any update on Boockvar’s request when reached for comment. But she noted that election mail is treated differently than regular first-class mail. She said it is “handled as expeditiously as possible,” although she could not say exactly what the delivery time difference is.

Another proposal to address the ballot delivery time crunch involves setting an earlier deadline to apply for mail ballots. House bill 2626, which is currently in the Senate, would move up the mail ballot application deadline by eight days, to Oct. 19.

That would give voters less time to apply for a mail ballot but would give the postal service a bigger, two-week window to deliver mail ballots to last-minute applicants, and for mail voters to return them to elections offices by Nov. 3.

But Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto the bill because it would also eliminate drop boxes for mail-in ballots and does not allow counties enough time to precanvass (open envelopes but not count the mail-in ballots) before election day.

Nov. 4 goal for counting ballots

D’Agostino, the chair of the Lancaster County elections board, said he would prefer the latter of those two options.

“The election is on Nov. 3, the votes should be in on Nov. 3,” D’Agostino said, and the winner should be known as soon as possible. “If you’re waiting on a good number of ballots to come in a few days after the election, that could be a problem.”

He said the county’s goal is to have all ballots — with the exception of those coming from overseas  —counted by Nov. 4.

D’Agostino also questioned what would happen if there was no postmark on a ballot envelope, but Murren said that even though return envelopes will be prepaid, they will still have postmarks. And indeed, the business reply envelopes LNP used for its mail test all arrived with postmarks.

Party leaders react

Diane Topakian, chair of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee, said she was happy to see that the majority of mock ballots in LNP’s experiment were returned quickly, but she still urged that voters get their ballots in early.

“USPS is trusted service and should keep it the way it is and funded,” she said.

Kirk Radanovic, chair of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County, said that a narrative surrounding the post office had been created by the left in an effort to scare and disenfranchise voters.

“The LNP experiment results are encouraging and crucial to ensuring that voters are confident in the security of their ballots,” Radanovic said.

“If voters are concerned that their ballot will not reach the board of elections in time, they should hand deliver their ballot in person to the county board of elections office or can select a mail service other than first class postage.”

Both parties agreed on one thing, however: Apply for your ballot early and send it in as soon as possible.

Staff members Dan Nephin, Hurubie Meko, Gillian McGoldrick, Erin Negley and Tim Buckwalter contributed to this report.