Details revealed about naked ballots

AP filePennsylvania mail-in ballots come with a “secrecy envelope.” Completed ballots must be placed inside this envelope, which has no identifiable markings on it. The secrecy envelope goes into a larger, outer envelope that bears the voter’s name and signature. The outer envelope is postpaid and addressed to the county elections office.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of question-and-answer columns to address questions from readers about voting and the many changes in the works leading up to the November election.


Naked ballots sound funny. Why is this a serious issue?

The concern about naked ballots first came to light in the June primary when election officials in a handful of Pennsylvania counties determined that they wouldn’t count mailed-in ballots that weren’t enclosed in secrecy envelopes when they arrived.

Advocates have argued that there’s no reason to discard so-called naked ballots because there’s no harm that comes from election workers seeing the ballots.

A group of Democrats sued to try to get the courts to order the counties to count naked ballots but failed. The state Supreme Court last week concluded that lawmakers made clear when the legalized mail-in voting that they wanted the ballots to arrive in the secrecy envelopes so that election workers wouldn’t see which candidates had been selected on the ballot.

The court then found that it had reached the “inescapable conclusion that a mail-in ballot that is not enclosed in the statutorily-mandated secrecy envelope must be disqualified.”

That decision has led to a scramble to make sure voters know that mail-in ballots that aren’t enclosed in the secrecy envelopes won’t be counted.

“When you receive your mail ballot, it will arrive with both a smaller secrecy envelope and a larger return envelope. Every mail ballot must be filled out correctly and sent back to your local county elections office in these TWO envelopes,” the state Democratic Party noted in an advisory sent out this week.

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent ruling has the potential to result in thousands – if not more – rejected ballots in Pennsylvania,” said Voter Protection Corps Chairman Quentin Palfrey.

That group is calling on the Legislature to act to either allow naked ballots to count or to provide an opportunity to notify voters that their ballot arrived without a secrecy envelope so that the voter can correct the mistake.

Both the governor and lawmakers have conceded that efforts to get the General Assembly to pass an election reform bill largely fell apart when the Supreme Court handed down its decision.

What’s going on with the lawsuits?

The state Supreme Court on Sept. 17 handed down its decision in a lawsuit brought by a group of Democrats seeking to force the state to enact changes in the way mail-in ballots are handled.

In addition to ruling that naked ballots shouldn’t be counted, the court also concluded that late-arriving ballots should be counted, and that drop boxes for voters to deposit their mail-in ballots would be permissible as well.

Is that the end of it? Not likely.

Republicans asked the state Supreme Court, to freeze the proposed move to allow late-arriving ballots to count while they appeal. The state Supreme Court on Thursday denied that request.

Republicans say they now plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

It’s not the only legal front in this battle.

The campaign of President Donald Trump and a group of Republicans had sued in federal court to get those kinds of reforms blocked. That case was paused to allow the state case to be resolved. With the state decision, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Ranjan has set an Oct. 13 hearing to consider evidence.

That is, of course, just three weeks before the election.

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