Pennsylvania election officials say they first learned last week that their new security measures blocking foreign access to state election sites were preventing voters abroad from accessing their absentee ballots.

But voters living outside the country told the Inquirer and Daily News they had trouble much earlier.

"Definitely I can tell you from my own experience, this happened in the May primary," said Portia Kamons, 56, who lived in Southwestern Pennsylvania before moving to the United Kingdom nearly three decades ago.

Kamons said she contacted the Pennsylvania Department of State and other officials to report the problem. When the state sent emails a few weeks ago directing voters to the same site — which remains blocked — Kamons said she was "hopping mad" that nothing had been done.

Other users also reported being blocked from seeing election results in January and March on the state site and prevented from opening the voter registration page in October 2016.

On left, the state voter services page when viewed on a cell phone in the United States. On right, what that same page calls up when viewed abroad.
Jonathan Lai / Staff
On left, the state voter services page when viewed on a cell phone in the United States. On right, what that same page calls up when viewed abroad.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Department of State spokesperson Wanda Murren said that the department first learned of problems on Sept. 25 but that "the numbers were not inconsistent with error rates prior to previous elections."

On Sept. 28, she continued, the Federal Voting Assistance Program "notified us that the issue appeared to be affecting more people from overseas than previously identified."

"As soon as we became aware that some of those measures might be causing access problems for overseas voters, we began looking for alternative methods by which to deliver absentee ballots," her statement said.

What to do if you can’t access the Pennsylvania elections website

Contact the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Help Desk at 1-866-472-7873 or STSVCSURE_Helpdesk@pa.gov and an employee will verify your identity and email you a ballot directly.
You can also contact your local county election officials — find their information here — or the Federal Voting Assistance Program at 1-800-438-VOTE (8683) and vote@fvap.gov. The nonprofit U.S. Vote Foundation runs an Overseas Vote program that also provides assistance to voters abroad.

A Philadelphia City Hall worker, however, said the city's voter registration office received a spike in contact from voters abroad who had trouble while attempting to vote in the May primary.

A state worker with knowledge of the policy and its implementation said the state first began blocking some foreign traffic in 2016. That program was eventually expanded to include the rest of the globe over the next two years.

The earliest evidence the Inquirer and Daily News found of the problem was in April 2016, when Saif Quadri, a dual citizen born in Pittsburgh and living in Pakistan, tweeted at the Department of State that he was unable to access his absentee ballot.

Quadri initially thought there was a problem with the site itself, tweeting a link to the state's voter services portal and asking the Pennsylvania Department of State, "Is the website down? I'm not being able to access my absentee ballot."

The department responded asking for more details, to which Quadri responded by sharing the exact error message that users saw this year when attempting to access their ballots.

"We are not seeing any error messages on our side," the Department of State tweeted back, sharing a link to try.

Quadri's response tells the department that he believes he is having problems based on location.

The department didn't respond.

In an interview, Quadri said that as an overseas voter he already was concerned about whether his ballot would be received and properly counted.

"I was like, 'Hey, this worked last time, why didn't it work this time? Time is running out, the election is so close. I want to vote, I want to participate. What if time runs out? ' " he said.

"That was my main concern."

Ultimately, as Quadri told the Department of State, he was able to obtain his ballot because he used a VPN service, which routes internet traffic through other networks. By funneling his connection through the United States, he was able to download and fill out his ballot. Quadri said he thought to use VPN because he first thought the Pakistani government was censoring his internet access.

In October 2016, another user tweeted that the state's online voter registration page was returning an error message.

It's not clear how many voters and would-be voters were affected in 2016. According to the person familiar with the policy's implementation, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions, the policy at the time affected a smaller number of voters than it does today because it was limited to specific countries.

"The current security measures were not in place in 2016. Our protective stance has significantly increased during 2018," Murren wrote in her statement. She did not immediately respond to a request for clarification as to whether a version of the geo-blocking policy was in place in 2016.

In January and March, visitors to the state's election results site were greeted by the same error page as voters in recent weeks.

Late last month, the department emailed about 4,000 voters with a link to download their blank ballots, but the linked site is among those that is limited to domestic users.

The State Department has emailed all potentially affected voters with contact information for a state help desk — 1-866-472-7873 or STSVCSURE_Helpdesk@pa.gov — and that information now shows on the message users see when they attempt to access the site from overseas. An employee will verify a voter’s information and then email a ballot directly. Since Monday, 530 overseas voters have been emailed ballots through this method, Murren said.