Matt Slocum / AP
A Pennsylvania court introduced a tough new rule to voters in perhaps the most important swing state in the country.
The state sends an additional “confidentiality envelope” with all of its postal ballot papers. And the court has now ruled that if voters forget to include this envelope when returning their ballot papers, their votes will automatically be invalidated – a mistake known as a “bare ballot paper”.
It’s a mistake Mira Rabin almost made when she sent her ballot for the Pennsylvania primary in June.
“I read the instructions or thought I did,” she said. “I filled it out, put it in the envelope, sealed it, and then said, wait, what’s that other envelope.”
It was the confidentiality envelope. Rabin was about to send out a bare ballot.
In the end, she carefully opened her ballot, added the second envelope, and tried to reseal the whole thing. It wouldn’t stick, so she taped it up.
“I was concerned that it looked like a tampered ballot, so I signed my name where the tape was in two places and mailed it,” she said.
Around the same time, Lynn Tatala, who lives outside of Pittsburgh, sent out her main ballot without a confidentiality envelope. Like Rabin, she realized her mistake after sealing the outer envelope. But unlike Rabin, she decided to leave.
“I don’t know why I was so casual at that point,” she said. “I said to my husband, ‘Hey, I think I have an extra envelope. Do you think this is important?’ And then I just put it aside and we sent it in and I never thought about it again. “
In June, the different decisions made by Rabin and Tatala did not matter.
Prior to the state’s Supreme Court decision, counties were free to make their own decisions about bare ballots. They tabulated the boroughs the two women live in, Philadelphia and Allegheny, of course, and Rabin and Tatala both said they had received emails telling them their ballots had been accepted.
But now there is a blanket rule. And if the same voters on opposite ends of the state made the same decisions by universal vote, Rabins would likely count and Tatalas would not.
Paul Gronke, an Oregon political science professor who heads the Early Voting Information Center, said the previous approach, where counties made their own decisions about non-disclosure envelopes, was standard among the 16 states that use them.
“I’ve worked closely with election administration issues and voted by mail for almost 20 years,” he said. “I’ve never heard of ballot papers being rejected simply because they don’t use the confidentiality envelopes.”
It’s hard to know how prevalent naked ballots are in Pennsylvania.
Populous Delaware County outside of Philadelphia reported that there were a few hundred bare ballots in elementary school. Few have been reported near Berks County. Most of the others who responded to inquiries said they didn’t keep track.
Philadelphia officials tracked the issue in the 2019 general election, saying that more than 6 percent of the postal ballot papers they received were missing non-disclosure envelopes. This election came before a significant expansion of the state’s postal voting laws, leaving the county with only a fraction of the mailed ballot papers it will receive in this year’s election.
But Lisa Deeley, a Philadelphia city commissioner, used the percentage to extrapolate the impact blanket ballot rejections could have across the country. It had an attention-grabbing number: 100,000 ballot papers could be invalidated.
The data is not good enough to draw firm conclusions about whether Deeley is right. But Gronke said one thing is certain: voters who are “more detached from the political system” are likely to be disenfranchised by technical violations.
“It will be color voters, lower-income voters, mobile voters, younger voters – these are the people who will be hurt by these changes,” he said.
These are groups that are often more likely to vote for Democrats. And these elections assume that Democratic voters are far more likely to post ballot papers than Republicans.
The party therefore sees these new rules as a much greater threat than the Republicans.
Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said that once staff understood the impact of the verdict on classified envelopes, they collapsed.
“We and the Biden team and DNC worked hand in hand to make sure we got the word out and educated voters,” he said.
They pump out short videos and infographics on social media and reach out to voters. Celebrities have also spread the word.
Welch said he was optimistic that the number of people who ultimately forget their confidentiality envelopes will be small.
But small numbers could also play a role. Four years ago, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by less than a percentage point.
The actual margin? Only 44,000 votes.
Emily Previti from member station WITF contributed to this story