Black voters in Pennsylvania struggled with state’s mail-in voting system

Written by on December 10, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat

Rondell Jordan is a registered Pennsylvanian voter but he almost didn’t get to cast his ballot this year. Jordan, a 31-year-old Black man, works remotely in Washington D.C. and had planned to vote by mail in the 2020 General Election. But each time he tried to get a mail-in ballot, the system failed him.

“I tried to request my ballot about five times through the Pennsylvania online portal system but I kept getting kickbacks,” Jordan recalls. “I couldn’t enter my Washington D.C. zip code because it kept correcting it to Washington, Pennsylvania.”

After weeks of trying to phone the state’s voter hotline to no avail, Jordan began to worry that he wouldn’t receive his mail-in ballot in time to cast his vote. A week before Election Day, he had to change his plans.

“It was just frustrating,” said Jordan. “At that point I was like, I got to go to Pittsburgh.”

Black voters in PA are less likely to vote by mail than white voters

Studies show that voters of color tend to vote in-person at higher rates than their white counterparts. Marc Meredith is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. According to his analysis of the 2020 primary, voters of color in Pennsylvania were more likely to vote in-person, while white voters in the state were more likely to vote by mail. He expects this to be true of the 2020 General Election as well.

That’s in large part due to a pattern of undependable mail service, says Myrna Pérez, Director of Voting Rights and Elections at the Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan law and public policy institute at New York University Law School. 

“Communities that have unreliable government services like unreliable mail are not going to depend upon the mail to elect the leaders who can change the qualities of their government services,” said Pérez.

This year, 23.5% of registered Pennsylvania voters — more than 2.6 million in number — cast votes by mail in the general election.

According to an analysis by Pennsylvania Voice, a statewide network of nonpartisan organizations working to expand power for communities of color, only a little over 15% of these mail-in ballots were returned by voters of color across the state, with less than 10% sent by Black voters, similar to their share in the electorate. However, voters of color were much more likely to vote by mail in Philadelphia, accounting for over half of all such ballots in the city. And these ballots are more likely to not be counted than ballots cast in person. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, mail-in ballots from voters of color are more likely to be contested or thrown out. Reasons for rejection range from missing signatures, a problem with the envelope, or missing the deadline.

For Sophia Stills, a Black woman, it was a discrepancy in her address. She’s a senior at Swarthmore College and a registered voter in the small Philadelphia suburb, but during the pandemic she moved off campus to live in Philadelphia.

“I requested a mail-in ballot early on and was tracking it for a while, when one day the status changed from ‘mailed’… to ‘cancelled,’” said Stills. 

Too close to Election Day for Stills to confidently request a new ballot, she decided to drive to Swarthmore and vote in person. But when she arrived, she was told she was ineligible to vote because the system still had her marked as voting by mail.

“I voted provisionally, but then a few days later I received an email telling me my ballot was being challenged in court by the Republican Party of Delaware County,” said Stills.

She wasn’t told what was wrong with her ballot and was forced to show up in court, only to find out that the current Philadelphia address she provided on her provisional ballot didn’t match the Swarthmore address on her voter registration file. Stills’ ballot was just one of the many provisional and mail-in ballots in Delaware County that became the target of GOP-backed lawsuits challenging the legality of the 2020 election.

The Republican party’s lawyer eventually dropped the motion to get the ballots with address issues thrown out, but Stills says the experience of seeing valid votes being challenged for the smallest problem left her shocked.

“It was frustrating hearing him successfully disqualify provisional ballots with other types of issues, like missing signatures, from the total count,” recalls Stills.

Black voters face overwhelming obstacles when trying to cast their ballots in-person as well. Decades-long practices of predatory voter ID laws and purging of voter registration rolls are just some of the challenges placed in between a person and their right to vote. 

Pennsylvania is actually one of the few states in the country in which the legislature fought off voter ID laws in the advent of the 2013 Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder decision that was infamous for gutting Section 5 of the 1965 Voter Rights Act. That’s a provision which requires jurisdictions that have a history of racial discrimination to get certification from the Department of Justice in advance of a proposed election change. Andy Hover, who’s the spokesman at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says the state never had any  jurisdictions that were covered by pre-clearance. 

But what did happen in Pennsylvania after this landmark Supreme Court decision was a renewed energy aimed at disenfranchising certain kinds of voters.

“What I think it did was it emboldened vote suppressors to try their luck in the courts,” said Pérez of Brennan Center. “They perceived that there would be some on the Supreme Court that would be sympathetic to their position because the Supreme Court undertook the Shelby County decision knowing what its impact would be.”

 And the barriers to voting for African Americans are compounded by additional social factors as well, according to Kat Calvin, executive director of Spread the Vote, a nonpartisan organization that helps everyday citizens obtain IDs and register to vote.

“Usually it’s standing in line for a long time, and you work an hourly job and you have kids to take care of,” said Calvin. “It’s not like each person just has one barrier, you usually have multiple barriers and the more vulnerable you are, then the more of those barriers you’re going to have.”

‘I hope I don’t get COVID out here’

Since Jordan was never able to successfully request his mail-in ballot, he had to take off from work a week before Election Day, cross state lines, and cast his ballot in-person at an early voting location in Pittsburgh. Anticipating a high election turnout this year and concerned by the COVID-19 infections that were cropping up across the region, Jordan wanted to vote by mail to avoid the potential of exposure to the coronavirus. But left with no other option, he was forced to make the trip to Pennsylvania.

While on a connecting bus from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh,  Jordan thought the hardest leg of the journey was behind him. That’s until his bus broke down an hour outside of the city. In that moment, the familiar feeling of fear and exhaustion he’d felt earlier about not being able to request his ballot began to return.

“It was so wild and I was like I hope I don’t get COVID-19 out here at 4 am in the morning on the side of the road,” said Jordan. “I felt like that window was closing, like I might not be able to cast my ballot in the state that is incredibly important.”

Despite the major inconvenience and the health risk a trip like this posed for Jordan, he expressed a feeling of determination about casting his ballot in this election. For him, there was nothing more important. Pérez says that’s a common feeling amongst Black voters.

“Just like people put their lives on the line to go to marches or to sit on wrong seats on the bus in a very public way, [Black] people want to go to the polling places to be able to say, I’m here, I care about my right to vote, and I’m going to demonstrate my commitment to this country in a very public way,” said Pérez. “I also think we’re talking about communities that have had to go through so much and fight so hard for the right to vote that it’s almost like a civic religion.”

Many Black voters felt like ‘they had to vote in-person’

Then there are also Black voters who want the satisfaction and security of seeing their vote cast in front of them, in real time. That’s not possible through the mail-in system. Unfortunately, that sense of security came at a risk this year. Black Americans have been infected with COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. And the same Black community that was hit the hardest by the virus, was the very same community that  believed the system would let them down.

“What we really needed given the disproportionate death rates of communities of color [was] a system that African-American voters trusted,” said Pérez.

Unable to cast a vote by mail, Jordan had to brave the trip to Pennsylvania and trust that he’d be able to safely vote at his county’s early voting site. He recalls the packed lines and the concern of COVID-19 exposure creeping back up as he waited for over an hour and a half to cast his ballot. 

But he also noted the sense of clarity that came with in-person voting. 

He could easily consult poll workers if he had a question. The rules for casting your ballot were clearly laid out and reiterated for voters by election workers. Jordan says the level of assistance and care he got in-person was nothing like the anxious and isolating experience of trying to vote by mail remotely.

“Ultimately, once I cast my ballot, it was just relief,” said Jordan. And after his experience this year, he doesn’t see himself voting by mail in Pennsylvania for the foreseeable future, that is until the barriers for requesting a mail-in ballot get addressed.

For him, the election workers, get-out-the-vote organizers, and good government organizations he depended on to successfully vote in this election make him trust the integrity of the election infrastructure as a whole.

“I think there were a lot of really problematic issues facing our elections [this year] and I think we overcame them,” said Pérez. “But what I don’t want the takeaway to be is that everything went smooth. There were a lot of voters [who] felt like they had to vote in person, which isn’t the safest thing from a public health perspective.” 

“We should have done better.”


Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.


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