More than 100,000 ballots are at risk of not being counted in a crucial swing state in November's presidential election, an official warned this week. The scale of the problem could potentially swamp the size of President Donald Trump's 2016 victory in the key state of Pennsylvania, which has a signficant chance of being the tipping point state in 2020.
Lisa Deeley, a Democrat who serves as the chairwoman of Philadelphia's commissioners office, wrote a letter to state lawmakers on Monday drawing attention to the issue.
Last week, she explained, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling that she said "is going to cause electoral chaos." The court ruled that so-called "naked ballots" will not be counted.
So what is a "naked ballot"? In Pennsylvania, mail-in ballots come with two envelopes. The first, blank envelope, contains the ballot and is meant to keep it secret. The ballot and the first envelope are then together placed in a second envelope, which is postmarked, addressed and carried to the elections office.
When a voter accidentally skips the first envelope, placing the ballot directly in the second envelope, it's called a "naked ballot."
Deeley explained that the Philadelphia Board of Elections has traditionally counted these ballots. After all, the first envelope is mean to ensure a voter's privacy. If a ballot is "naked," it doesn't undermine the integrity of the vote at all, it just means the voter won't have all the privacy they could have.
But the state supreme court's ruling would invalidate these ballots, she explained. According to Deely's accounting, 6.4 percent of ballots in a 2019 general election were naked. Statewide, she estimated, this could result in 100,000 votes or more that would be discarded under this rule — "votes that will not be counted, because of a technicality." This problem could be exacerbated because mail-in voting is expected to be widespread, and many people will be engaging in the process for the first time.
"When you consider that the 2016 Presidential Election in Pennsylvania was decided by just over 44,000 votes, you can see why I am concerned," she said. "This is not a partisan issue. We are talking about the voting rights of our constituents, whether they be Democrats, Republcinas, or independents, whose ballots will be needlessly set aside."
She also argued that this problem is entirely unnecessary because the "secrecy envelope is not needed." Since votes are counted rapidly in an "industrialized process," she argued, there's no way for vote counters to identify a particularly voter's ballot.
She urged lawmakers to strike down the requirement for a secrecy envelope to avoid the coming confusion and possible mass disenfranchisement.
But if that doesn't happen, there are other ways to mitigate the chaos. Pennsylvania voters can be instructed to use the secrecy envelope if it is provided, and voters generally can be educated to follow the instructions on mail-in ballots as scrupulously as possible. The 2020 election is already extremely fraught — the chance that it could be decided by such simple and pointless blunders should be disturbing to everyone.