With thousands of ballots outstanding and complaints pouring in, a Montgomery County judge on Thursday granted a petition to extend by four days the deadline for returning absentee ballots.
"I guess we run the risk that 17,000 people could be disenfranchised unless there's some extension," Senior Judge Bernard A. Moore said at a hearing in Norristown.
County officials acknowledged receiving "unprecedented demand" this year for absentee ballots and said they had mailed 29,541 absentee ballots.
But with the 5 p.m. Friday deadline looming, voters continued to complain that they had not yet received their ballots. By Thursday afternoon, only half of the ballots had been returned, while other counties were seeing return rates closer to 80 percent, officials said.
"It is totally unacceptable," said Cheryl L. Austin, a county judge and election board member who said her daughter in California was among those still waiting for her absentee ballot.
Moore ruled that absentee ballots will be counted if they are submitted before 8 p.m. Tuesday, when polls close.
The reason behind the slowdown remained a matter of debate. Various officials pointed to a delay in printing absentee ballots, the high volume of applications, problems with the postal service, or the loss of key workers in the voter services department.
Representatives from both parties told the judge the delays were unprecedented and they had not heard of similar backups in other counties.
Val Arkoosh, a Democratic county commissioner and chairwoman of the election board, declined to assign blame Thursday or say that a mistake was made.
She said the county met its legal obligation to send out all ballots by the deadline Tuesday. She also stood by a decision to delay printing and sending absentee ballots until Oct. 11, due to a dispute over wording of a ballot question. "It was a decision our team made," Arkoosh said.
In court Thursday, Nicole Forzato, a senior assistant county solicitor, showed the judge a stack of legal pads filled with notes logging complaints or questions left by county voters in 1,300 voice mails in the last week.
"Within a few hours, our mailboxes are getting full," voter services administrator Matthew Macekura said.
Macekura testified that voter services also had an issue with the Norristown post office, which he said was understaffed and unprepared to sort mail quickly.
"Something has happened here that we can't explain, but we need to make it right," Forzato said.
Republican Commissioner Joe Gale, vice chairman of the election board, suggested that there was an explanation: chaos within the voter services department. The department's top two employees resigned in recent weeks.
"Everyone should acknowledge it's been chaotic," Gale said.
Gale complained that former campaign staffers for Democratic commissioners - including Chairman Josh Shapiro, who is running for attorney general - have now been hired to work in voter services.
"I can understand why so many members of the public lack confidence and trust in the election process," he said.
Arkoosh said Gale's claims were "factually wrong" and maintained that the staff working on the election were well-prepared and working in a nonpartisan manner. She criticized Gale for running radio advertisements in which he assailed the voter services department, while also serving as a member of the board responsible for upholding integrity in the election.
Arkoosh said the election board will meet after the election to discuss what happened and how to improve.
After the judge's order, the county announced that voters approved for absentee ballots can deliver them or vote in person at the county voter services office in Norristown through Monday (http://www.montcopa.org/753/Voter-Services).
The office will also hold weekend hours: Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon and Sunday from noon until 3 p.m.