Thousands of voters who used mail-in ballots in the Pennsylvania primary election this year did not have their votes counted, and election officials are working to ensure the same thing doesn't happen in the presidential election.
Nearly 40,000 mail-in ballots were "canceled" by county election offices in the June primary, according to figures provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections. Of those, 20,000 were canceled and their votes were not counted because the ballots were returned late or had an issue with the signature on the outer envelope.
Another 20,000 mail-in ballots were canceled for other reasons, like the U.S. Postal Service marked them undeliverable or a voter cast a ballot in-person at a polling place. It is unclear how many of those canceled ballots led to voters losing their say in the election.
Counties are making efforts ahead of the Nov. 3 election to let voters who do not properly return their mail-in ballots to get a second chance, time permitting. That means sending emails to those voters saying their ballot was improperly completed, one county official told NBC10.
"If they included an email on their application, they would have received an email regarding the status of their ballot not being counted," said the election official, who asked not to be named because the person is unauthorized to speak publicly. "Most of those emails went out after the primary, but we’re hoping to put a process in place to get that done before the general this time so people will have a chance to correct any problems."
Pennsylvania is expected to be decided by a very close margin in the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by about 44,000 votes out of 6 million ballots cast. That's less than 1%.
"If there's one takeaway from that, we need to do a better job in the general election than we did in the primary ensuring that everyone who wants to vote gets their vote counted," Ben Geffen of the Public Interest Law Center said of the thousands of mail-in ballots that didn't count. "The system needs to work for voters. The red tape shouldn’t get in the way of a ballot being counted."
Geffen said the rules for accepting and counting mail-in ballots should make it easier, not harder, for voters. That includes reconsidering the importance of a signature on the outer envelope and installation of dropboxes for mail-in ballots throughout the 67 counties.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State did not respond to requests to discuss the canceled mail-in ballots with state election officials.
Mail-in ballots are expected to go out to voters as early as this week. State election law allows voters to mail them back to their county election office as soon as they'd like.
Geffen and county election officials are urging voters not to wait to fill out the ballot.
"The message we’re trying to get out to everyone who will listen is that the word is: early," Geffen said.
Montgomery County Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence Jr., who is chairman of the county election board, said many voters are still uncertain about how to vote in the general election.
"There is a lot of anxiety from voters trying to figure out do they want to vote in person, do they want to vote by mail," Lawrence Jr. said.
Voters have until Oct. 27 to apply for a mail-in ballot, but officials have long said that the deadline is much too close to Election Day. If a voter applies for a mail-in ballot near the deadline, officials say it will be difficult for a voter to receive a ballot and then return it by Nov. 3.
Confusion surrounding mail-in ballots also remains an issue, even after their use in the primary. Two municipalities in Delaware County recently rejected an offer to have a mail-in ballot dropbox placed at their town halls. Dropboxes were used in the primary in some places like Philadelphia and Montgomery County, but the rules for using them is still not widely known.
The solicitor for the Council members in Trainer Borough, one of the municipalities in Delaware County that declined a dropbox, told NBC10 in an interview that the local governing body was unclear what the laws are for the dropboxes.
That uncertainty, he said, led the Trainer Council to reject the offer from Delaware County's election office.
For voters who want to know how mail-in ballots work, from how to request one to where to sign the envelope and how to return it, here is a very concise video:
Geffen, of the Public Interest Law Center, said he doesn't think a technicality like a missing secrecy envelope should cancel out a ballot.
“A technical mistake by the voter doesn’t mean the vote should be discarded," he said.