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In Hays County, hundreds of mail-in ballots are bounced back to voters

In what Hays County officials are chalking up to a glitch in the U.S. Postal Service mail separation system, hundreds of voters’ mail-in ballots have been returned to sender.

Hays County Elections Administrator Joyce Cowan said about 300 ballots have mistakenly bounced back to voters. Cowan said she has received about 100 calls or visits from voters since early October.

“We thought, ‘Well, that’s unusual. It’s pretty prominent on the front (of the envelope) who this goes to,’” county spokeswoman Laureen Chernow said.

The problem, first reported by KXAN, appears to be caused by a white label on the back of the envelopes that contains the voter’s name, address and a bar code that helps the elections office track the ballot. The post office seems to be sending the completed ballots back to that address, rather than to the elections office, Cowan said.

Nothing about the envelope nor the process, which is stipulated by state law, has changed in many years, Cowan said.

The U.S. Postal Service said in a statement Wednesday that the agency “apologizes to any customers in the Buda, TX and the Hays County area who may have experienced issues with their absentee ballots.”

“We are working with local election officials to determine the possible cause of any issues with ballots being returned,” the Postal Service said. “We will continue to work together to ensure all ballots are processed and delivered on time.”

In the meantime, the elections office is scratching off voters’ addresses on the labels to reduce chances of confusion, and the postal workers are collecting envelopes they find to prevent bounce-back, Hays officials said.

County officials are encouraging those who haven’t yet sent their ballots to do the same, being careful to only scratch out their address, not their name or the bar code.

The Hays County elections office had first received about 10 calls about bounced ballots during the primaries this year, but Cowan said she didn’t look further into it at the time because she “just didn’t look at it as major then” and thought it was a “fluke, for lack of a better word.”

When she started receiving more calls this month, Cowan called the post office.

Cowan said she is aware of other counties having the same issue but declined to say which counties.

Elections officials in neighboring Travis and Caldwell counties said they hadn’t heard of voters having such problems.

Officials in Bexar, Harris and Denton counties, which use the same vendor as Hays to print labels and other voting materials, also hadn’t had an issue. Instead of placing the voters’ address labels on the back of the envelope, as Hays County does, these other counties place the label in the top left corner of the front of the envelope, the traditional position for return addresses.

As of Wednesday, the Hays County Elections Office had mailed out 4,571 ballots-by-mail and received 1,863 completed ones. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 28, and the ballots must be returned by Nov. 8.

In the midst of an election season in which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has raised concerns over a “rigged” system, Chernow said she wanted to assure voters that this is a technical error with no foul play suspected.

“There does not appear to be any issue with voter fraud involved in this,” she said. “This is simply a post office glitch.”

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