(CN) — Kate Ramsey has to work Nov. 3, but she still wants to vote this year. The registered nurse, who takes care of Covid-19 patients through an at-home care program, signed up for an absentee ballot through the Virginia Department of Elections website in June.
But as Election Day neared and ballots started getting mailed out, she feared the worse.
“I realized I never got mine,” she said. “I checked the tracker and it said it was supposed to come the 21st.”
“I was afraid I accidentally threw it away,” Ramsey added. “I figured it would be obvious it was a ballot, so then I thought ‘now what do I do?’”
Ramsey and other Virginia voters who spoke with Courthouse News complained of a range of issues with the state’s ballot tracking system, Ballot Scout. It’s supposed to track ballots from the registrar’s office to the voter and back, but as the state leads the country with over 800,000 mail or in-person votes already cast, with another nearly 700,000 waiting to be returned, the tool’s deficiencies are raising eyebrows when concerns about election security are at an all-time high.
Scan rate numbers from Ballot Scout show about 89% of tracked ballots are making the full trip from registrar’s office to voter and back again. That’s compared to 99% in other jurisdictions nationally.
Jessenia Eliza, director of government initiatives for Democracy Works, the nonprofit organization that built Ballot Scout, said in an interview they were aware of Virginia’s lower scan rate and said a number of factors can impact the system.
“In Virginia the tool relies entirely on USPS scan data,” Eliza said in a phone interview, noting the program doesn’t do much more than interpret the data it receives.
“It relies on ballot envelopes having an intelligent barcode to scan as the ballot moves,” she added. “That said, gaps in scanning do occur.”
Gaps in scanning, according to Eliza, often originate from the federal postal system: ballots can get lost in the mail or a post office can use a system of local sorting which circumvents the scanning process.
This can lead to a ballot getting scanned at one point in the process but not another.
The U.S. Postal Service did not respond to a request for comment.
The inconsistency in scans is one of the reasons Teresa Smithson, elections director for Hanover County, just north of Richmond, said she isn’t a fan of the tool.
“There’s plenty of people who [vote in person and] bring their ballot from home - or they lost it. We’ve literally had someone say their dog ate their ballot,” Smithson said of the issues her early polling location has seen, while remaining weary of placing blame solely on the USPS.
While Virginia has used Ballot Scout for years, paying $47,000 annually, according to state officials, this is the first year the state’s board of elections mandated its use.
Smithson was among those who begrudgingly embraced the tracker.
“It takes three times as much stuff to print the intelligent bar codes,” she said, noting that she used to be able to fit seven voters on a mail label sheet but now she can only fit three or four with the required codes. “All these costs add up and we’re not being reimbursed for any of that.”
Instead of helping her, she said Ballot Scout has led to increased costs and calls from voters asking why their ballot wasn’t delivered despite the tool saying otherwise.
“I don’t have time to sit down and breathe, let alone look at Ballot Scout,” Smithson said. She noted her office was handling a record 12,000 ballot requests - almost 10,000 more than 2016 - as her district votes under the shroud of Covid-19.
But other Virginia election officials praised Ballot Scout as a key tool in running a successful election.
“I’ve used Ballot Scout over the years and found it helpful to use if people understand” how the tracking works, Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter said in an email. “If they don’t, however, it does cause confusion and raises the level of anxiety for the voter.”
Members of both parties hyping up the tracker without properly educating voters isn’t helping either, she said.
“There is an expectation for function that the tool really might not be designed to deliver,” Showalter said.
Virginia Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, heads his chamber’s election subcommittee. While he was disappointed to hear about voters’ issues, he pointed to the pandemic as well as sweeping changes made by legislators earlier in the year – including allowing no-excuse absentee voting for the first time and opening early voting 45 days before Election Day – as possible reasons for such issues and areas for the state to improve on in the future.
“We know we’re going to have to go back and clean things up,” he said. “I would pause judgment until we can see all the moving pieces.”
Andrea Gains, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Elections, said her agency was aware of the confusion some voters are facing with Ballot Scout and they are working with USPS to address the missed scans.
“If Ballot Scout is not working for voters they may visit our citizen portal,” she said in an email.
Meanwhile, Pittsylvania County resident Brady Walker, who said Ballot Scout failed to track his ballot on its return trip to the registrar’s office, is already making plans to vote in 2021.
“Would I use Ballot Scout again? Yes,” he said. “But I would not trust it and I would call my registrar to confirm.”
Polls in Virginia opened Sept. 18 and close on Election Day, Nov. 3.
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