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Could Robust Ballot Tracking Help Lancaster County, Pa.?

Pennsylvania voters have access to a state ballot tracking system. But some officials and observers wonder if a more comprehensive system might have explained why 268 ballots were delayed last fall.

A sign in Lancaster County, Pa., shows people where to vote in New Holland.
(TNS) — In 2008, the Denver, Colorado, elections office received 57,000 calls from voters — 20% of the electorate at the time — and the most common question was about the status or whereabouts of a mail-in ballot, according to Amber McReynolds.

McReynolds, now a member of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, and others at the Denver elections office set out to reduce the number of people calling them every election. They helped develop a system called Ballot Trace that lets voters receive automatic updates about their ballot's journey.

McReynolds said the technology, now more than a decade old, likely could have helped explain why it took 268 ballots two weeks to arrive at the Lancaster County elections office last fall. Those ballots were thrown out because they arrived six days past the Election Day deadline.

A more comprehensive mail-in ballot tracking system, she said, could have prevented people from losing their vote.

In Colorado, McReynolds said, "we actually knew who had not returned their ballot seven days (from Election Day), and we would send texts and emails to voters and say, 'Hey, it's too late to send it.' " The system then also texted those voters Google Maps directions to the nearest place where they could return their ballots, she said.

The 268 delayed ballots sent by Lancaster County voters for last year's municipal election all bore postmarks stamped 10 days before the deadline. A review of mail-in ballots from the April 23 primary found three ballots mailed at least 10 days prior to deadline were not counted because they arrived late at the county elections office.

One of those ballots, sent from Denver, Colorado, was timestamped at the county elections office 10 days after its postmark. A ballot sent from Harrisburg showed a difference of 18 days; and a ballot sent from Georgia and postmarked April 17 was not timestamped until May 16 — 29 days after it was first registered by the postal system.

About 20,000 Lancaster County voters submitted mail-in ballots in the primary.

An independent experiment run by LNP — LancasterOnline in April also showed a handful of unexplained Postal Service processing delays. Two of 62 sample pieces of ballot-size first-class mail — one sent from every post office in the county — took 12 days to reach their downtown Lancaster post office box destination.

Though a spokesperson for the Postal Service declined to confirm it, county officials and a staffer in U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's office said Postal Service officials told them they had investigated the hundreds of delayed county ballots from the November general election and were unable to reach any conclusions on the matter.

A public records request submitted to the Postal Service for any documents or records related to an investigation of the delayed general election ballots returned no relevant records.

"We have no way of locating records on mail/packages as they move through processing without a tracking number," wrote a Postal Service employee in response to the records request.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker said the congressman's office regularly helps constituents with Postal Service-related issues, but no one has contacted Smucker about delayed mail-in ballots.

"Any failure of the USPS to deliver mail-in ballots on time is wholly unacceptable and must be remedied without delay," said Eric Reath, Smucker's spokesperson, who also encouraged any affected voters to contact Smucker's office to open an inquiry with the Postal Service.

Kim Miller, a local Pennsylvania Postal Workers Union leader representing workers in Harrisburg, said nothing about the issue has come to her, but "if they knew something, they wouldn't share it with us," she said of Postal Service management.


BallotTrax, an updated version of the Ballot Trace system, and other products like it are now available to at least 100 million voters across the country, possibly 120 million at this point, McReynolds said.

"It's definitely a majority of the voting population has access, and it continues to expand," she said.

All Pennsylvania voters have access to a less robust ballot tracking system run by the Department of State. Voters, if they opt in, can receive email or text updates about when their ballot was mailed to them, that their completed ballot was received by the county elections office and whether it was counted or disqualified. The state system does not track ballots as they journey through the postal system.

In a battleground state like Pennsylvania, where partisan margins are razor thin, even 1% or 2% of completed ballots arriving late at elections offices could mean the disqualification of thousands of ballots, according to Steve Hutkins, a close watcher of the Postal Service and editor of

"A few thousand ballots can completely change the course of the country," Hutkins said.

Ballot-printing vendors in the Northeast are increasingly offering more tracking services to counties, said Thad Hall, elections director for Mercer County, located about an hour north of Pittsburgh.

Mercer County uses Rochester, New York-based Phoenix Graphics as its mail-in ballot vendor, Hall said. The printing company's software includes shipping information on individual ballots, according to its website.

When a mail-in ballot gets scanned by a Postal Service employee at a sorting facility, a local post office or final address, Hall said he can look up that information if voters call to report their ballot is missing or delayed.

"I know your ballot is sitting in whatever township (post office) it's sitting in," Hall said.

READ: Candidates' court challenges lead to less time for Lancaster County mail-in voters

Currently, Hall said, his office uses ballot tracking to make sure ballots get to voters' homes, but next year Mercer County will begin offering a tracking service available to voters.

Lancaster County currently uses Phoenix Graphics as its printer for in-person ballots at polling places, but uses Claysburg-based NPC for mail-in ballots.

Phoenix Graphics did not respond to requests for comment.

Lancaster County Elections Director Christa Miller declined to discuss ballot-tracking technology and said anything more than the state's current ballot-tracking would need to be discussed at a county Board of Elections meeting.

Lancaster County Commissioner Alice Yoder was not aware of the ballot-tracking technology, but researched it after being contacted by LNP — LancasterOnline, she said.

"It sounds like a wonderful technology to be used to create greater visibility into the mail-in ballot mailstream," Yoder wrote in an email. "I would be very supportive of any way to completely control and account for mail-in ballots as (they) move through the mailing process. It would allow us to better anticipate mail volume, respond to voter questions, and resolve mailing issues in real time."

NPC does not offer services related to intelligent mail barcodes, Yoder said.

"If we had this technology we might have been able to better identify where the delay occurred with the 268 mail-in ballots last November and develop a solution to ensure it would not happen again," Yoder wrote.

Lancaster County Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D'Agostino did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

NPC did not respond to a request for comment.

Florida-based Enhanced Voting, the same company behind Lancaster County's new election returns website, offers a product called Ballot Scout, which also uses Postal Service barcodes.

"Voters can look up their ballot's status through Ballot Scout's voter-facing online tool, and sign up for status notifications via email and (text message)," according to the product's website.

The introduction to more sophisticated ballot tracking has not been without some issues. Some voters got confused by the system when it was first introduced in 2020 in California and North Carolina, according to reports, at least in part because the tracker's notifications were not as instantaneous and frequent as tracking systems often used for package delivery.

NBC 7 in San Diego also reported in 2020 that scammers were mimicking the notifications.

'Today's date' on mail-in ballot will matter this year, including for primary


Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said Lancaster County could put more practices in place to minimize the number of delayed ballots.

"The elections (office) can send staff to the mail-sorting center on Election Day to collect ballots," Hoover wrote in an email. "And the board of elections should be making drop boxes available throughout the county. Voters can then bypass the postal service and deliver their ballots straight to the elections bureau via a drop box."

Republicans Parsons and Ray D'Agostino have opposed dropboxes since 2022, when they voted to remove the county's only one from the entrance of the Lancaster County Government Center.

Yoder, a Democrat, said she favors dropboxes and thought the idea of sending an election worker to the Postal Service sorting center in Harrisburg was interesting, but she did not know enough to say whether it would be practical.

"One voter not counting is a big deal, and I have a hard time leaving that on the table," Yoder said. The Democrat said she did not know whether the county elections office is able to track ballots using Postal Service barcodes.

©2024 LNP, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.