D.C. is joining several states in mailing ballots to every registered voter ahead of the November general election. The city recently mailed a double-sided form that asks voters to, if needed, provide a different address for an absentee ballot or check a box indicating that the intended recipient no longer lives there.
But some voters hoping to take one of those steps this week encountered a problem: Tearing the mailer along its perforation after filling it out, as instructed, detaches it from the name and address of the voter who received it. In some cases, this means the form would be sent back to the Board of Elections without crucial identifying information.
“This was a design flaw,” Rachel Coll, a spokeswoman for the Board of Elections, said Tuesday night as complaints about the design gained traction online. “We are encouraging folks to just tape it together and send the whole thing back, with the personal information on the inside.”
Coll said that to her knowledge, the lower half of the form does not contain a bar code that would allow it to be matched to an individual, effectively making it useless for some seeking to update their information. She urged those who are encountering issues to leave the entire postcard intact or write relevant information in the margins, despite the mailer’s written instructions.
It was unclear Wednesday how exactly how the board would handle forms that were torn in half, but Coll suggested they would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“We’re encouraging people to be resourceful given there is this issue with the form,” she said. “Information about prior tenants would be appreciated.”
Bob Hall, a 67-year-old Ward 6 resident, noticed the issue just after he tore the card along the perforation and prepared to drop it in the mail. He had checked the box to have his absentee ballot sent to his secondary address in Key West — but realized that section did not ask him to print his name.
If he sent the form back to the Board of Elections as instructed, it would not contain his name or permanent address in the District — just the updated one.
Hall said the faulty form makes him worry that his friends who will be outside the District may not receive their absentee ballots. The form’s issues are especially concerning, he said, ahead of what will probably be a contentious general election in the fall.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said Hall, who has lived in the District for 32 years. “We’re at this pivotal point where the integrity of elections is paramount in this country, and they totally screwed it up.”
Other D.C. residents who shared their complaints online said they received one or more mailers intended for former tenants at the address but ran into a similar problem. Once they checked the box indicating “this person does not live at the address shown” and tore off the top half of the postcard, the former resident’s name and address became separated from the form.
“Honestly, I want to let them know this individual no longer lives here so there’s a correct account of it,” said Jared Dunlap, a Ward 1 resident who received a mailer for a former tenant at his address. “Because of the glitch, I’ll probably shred this and not send it back in. It just makes you wonder a little about the process.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the Board of Elections tried to assuage confusion with a tweet: “DO NOT DETACH!” the board wrote, instructing voters to fold and tape the postcard before mailing it.
It was not immediately clear how and when the board would reach confused voters who do not use Twitter, though officials emphasized Wednesday that there would be ample opportunities for people to ensure their information is correct ahead of the election.
In Virginia last week, controversy played out after a voter registration group mailed out thousands of absentee-ballot applications containing a return envelope addressed to the wrong election office. The issue was cited as a computer error but sparked claims of ballot fraud across the state.
Confusion over the recent form was not a surprise for some D.C. residents, however — especially those who participated in the June 2 primary election, which was marked by scores of complaints from people who never received their absentee ballots. The missing ballots spurred hours-long lines at the District’s 20 polling locations, which were whittled from the usual 143 because of health concerns related to the virus.
“Seeing how the primary turned out and seeing this, it gives me worry as a voter about how votes can be accounted for in an accurate and timely fashion,” said Dunlap, whose girlfriend left a primary polling location in June without voting after waiting for more than two hours.
The mailer appears to have been an attempt to ensure a smooth voting process during the general election, and for those whose name and address were already correct, it worked as intended.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) initially praised the mailer in a Tuesday tweet, writing that it provided “much clearer information about the election & vote-by-mail than the primary.” He tweeted a clarification later that day after becoming aware of the design issue, however, writing: “I’m already on the phone with the Board of Elections to find out more & will follow-up.”
“After the primary, the board has to do everything right,” he said in an interview. “I’m sorry — the directions are pretty clear on what they asked the voters to do. A tape-it-and-send-it workaround is not going to cut it.”
Allen said the board might need to mail out a new form to ensure voters have everything they need. But in an interview Wednesday, Board of Elections Chair Michael Bennett said he had no plans to issue a form to amend the faulty one. Coll added that the board’s vendor “cannot get the right paper in a timely way.”
“We are getting the word out now regarding how to use the postcard to send it back, correcting the instructions,” Bennett said. “It’s unfortunate — I’m not going to make any excuses for the design flaw of that particular postcard — but we’ll be getting other information out to voters to make sure it’s clear what people need to do, or not do, to vote in November.”
D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) on Wednesday tweeted her disappointment about the mix-up. She told The Washington Post that the board needs to be held accountable for its mistakes.
“It’s the same excuses every time,” she said. “I was frustrated with the answers they gave for why there were so many foul-ups with that primary.”
It was not clear by Wednesday afternoon exactly how many people had complained about the form. For those who follow the mailer’s instructions and inadvertently send it back without some or any identifying information, such as a name, Coll said, the board could look them up by address and confirm their information that way.
“We’re doing the best we can with an unprecedented situation,” Coll said. “When in doubt, call us, email us — either of those will get you to a person who can answer questions.”