Returned to Senders: Dallas County Takes Magic Marker to Absentee Ballot Envelopes to Fix Issue

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There are new absentee ballot troubles in Dallas County. Some voters report they sent their ballots, only to have the post office return them to the voter's house and not the county elections office.

Now NBC 5 Investigates has learned the U.S. Postal Service and Dallas County Elections officials are essentially pointing fingers at each other over what's causing the problem and the county’s temporary fix for the problem involves election officials taking a black marker and scribbling out information on the absentee ballot return envelopes. A move that may not inspire confidence among some voters already concerned about potential problems with voting by mail.

“Obviously, there's something wrong”, said Bryan LeBlanc who recently mailed his absentee ballot from Richardson, and then says he found it back in his own mailbox days later as 'returned to sender.'

“What's happened, does anybody know? Is it the post office? Was it an accident?”, LeBlanc asked in an interview with NBC5.

Dallas County’s assistant elections administrator Robert Heard says the problems stem from the return envelopes voters use to send their ballot.

The envelopes have a bar code on the front that should direct the ballot to the elections office when the ballot runs through the postal service's sorting machines, but in some cases the machines read the back of the envelope which has an ID label with the voter's home address. If the machine sees that, it may route the ballot back to the voter.

“We've gotten enough calls and concern about it that, you know, we're definitely trying to work out fixes for it”, Heard said.

It's not the first time the county has had these problems.

In a primary runoff election in July some voters complained ballots were returned to sender. The county elections department then pledged to re-design the envelopes to prevent it from happening again.

But the U.S. Postal Service says Dallas County did not share its final design for the new envelope.

A Postal Service spokesman told NBC 5 Investigates, "The postal service reviewed a redesigned return ballot mailpiece for Dallas County after the primary election. However, after providing feedback, we never received the final mailpiece design for approval. Further in our review, we recommended against placement of an access label on the back of the ballot envelope…"

The county elections department says that's simply not true, that it did share the final design and that the Postal Service approved.

“They came by and got copies of all envelopes. They've gotten copies. They've got probably two or three copies of this envelope", Heard said.

For now, Heard says the only fix is for election workers to take a black marker and scribble out the voter addresses on the return envelopes, so mail sorting machines won't scan the wrong information.

The county is now scratching out those addresses on thousands of envelopes, like the one that arrived recently at the Wainer family’s house in Dallas.

Larry Wainer was surprised to see black ink scribbled over the address on his wife's ballot return envelope.

“So that doesn't encourage voter confidence, does it?”, Wainer said

Larry knows a bit about elections. He’s a member of Dallas County's Citizen Election Advisory Committee.

“We want the voters to have confidence that their ballot is going to be received and that it's going to be counted”, Wainer said.

But the bigger worry he says, if the mail sorting issues aren't solved, some voters may have ballots come back to their house too late for their vote to count.

The elections office says more than 20,000 absentee ballots have already been returned without issues so far and it's too early to tell how many have bounced back to voters.

“I don't want to minimize it, certainly. But we do need to know the magnitude of the problem so that it helps us to prepare for future elections and going forward in this election”, said Heard.

If you receive your absentee ballot and your address is not scratched out on the return envelope, the county actually recommends you to get a black marker and do that yourself.

Or, you can drive the ballot to the elections office and drop the ballot there to avoid sending through the postal service altogether.

Meanwhile elections officials say there’s another ballot problem some voters are causing for themselves.

Absentee ballots are supposed to go into a white security envelope and then into the orange return envelope for mailing.

But some voters have been only using the security envelope and dropping that in the mail, despite the fact that the security envelope doesn't have an address on it.

So, the Postal Service has been collecting the security envelopes it receives and then calling the elections office to pick them up.

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