Redesigned envelope results in fewer rejected mail-in ballots, but highlights new type of error

Redesigned envelope results in fewer rejected mail-in ballots, but highlights new type of error

A Pennsylvania mail-in ballot for the 2024 primary election. Photo by Lauren Aguirre/Votebeat.

Fewer mail-in ballots were rejected due to voter errors overall in this year’s primary elections, an analysis by Votebeat and Spotlight PA shows, an achievement the state attributes to a modified ballot return envelope designed to help voters. voters to avoid mistakes.

Article by Carter Walker of Votebeat

But state data points to a new type of voter error affecting ballot rejection. And the way counties have diverged in their response to this mistake has opened a new avenue for litigation ahead of November’s presidential race.

Compared to the 2023 primary, counties rejected 9.6% fewer ballots for the types of errors the redesign sought to address: missing date or signature on the return envelope, incorrect date, or ballots returned without a secrecy envelope. internal. (See methodology for data analysis at the end of this article.)

“I think it’s clear that the ballot redesign resulted in fewer voters making errors,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt.

The Pennsylvania Election Code requires mail-in voters to place their ballot in a secrecy envelope before placing it in the return envelope. They must then sign and date the return envelope.

But since Pennsylvania implemented its no-excuse mail-in voting law, Act 77, in 2020, thousands of ballots have been rejected due to voter procedural errors, such as missing dates and signatures. Courts have gone back and forth on what errors should cause a ballot to be rejected. So far, the divided legislature has not successfully intervened to clarify the rules.

After the 2023 municipal elections, the State Department announced a redesigned ballot return envelope that it hoped would reduce the number of rejected ballots. The April 23 primary was the first in which that envelope was used.

But with the redesigned envelope, officials noticed a new error emerging: voters who put a date on their envelopes but left the year partially completed. Some counties rejected those ballots on that basis, while others, following the advice of state officials, accepted them.

The redesign made the date and signature box stand out.

The Department of State’s redesign of the mail-in ballot return envelope sought to address four of the most common errors that require counties to reject ballots: a missing date, an incorrect date, a missing signature, or a ballot not returned in a secret envelope.

In the new design, the area where a voter must sign and date the envelope is shaded, so it stands out, and has the digits “20” prefilled for the year, to prevent voters from writing in their date of birth. The secret envelopes were also changed to yellow and included new watermarks to highlight them.

Overall, the rate of votes rejected for these reasons, as a proportion of all mail-in ballots returned, decreased, which officials consider a success of the new design. But when the categories are separated, the success of the effort is less clear.

The rejection rate for undated ballots or ballots returned without a secrecy envelope decreased. But fees for those returned with an incorrect date or no signature have increased, and those errors now account for a larger share of rejected votes.

In the 2023 primary, they were the third and fourth most common errors leading to ballot rejection. Now they are numbers 1 and 2. Aside from voter errors, the biggest overall reason for rejection in both elections was ballots that arrived after Election Day.

There are some limitations to the more detailed data. Schmidt noted that the system counties use to track mail-in ballots allows them to enter only a code indicating the reason for rejection. So if a ballot lacks a signature and date, they can record it as rejected for just one of those reasons.

He added that there is no consistent method across counties for what order to check for errors and what code to use first. Some counties may also change the order in which they check fields from year to year.

“That’s why, in my opinion, the overall figure is more reliable,” he said.

In the 2023 primary, 1.35% of returned votes were rejected for the four reasons the redesign sought to address. That rate fell to 1.22% in the April primary, according to analysis by Votebeat and Spotlight PA. In total, just under 16,000 votes were rejected, for whatever reason.

A date detail: The last two digits of the year.

A feature of the redesigned envelope was a date field with the first two digits of the year (“20”) pre-populated. But as Election Day approached, voters returned their ballots without writing “24” after the pre-filled “20.”

On the Friday before the election, Deputy Secretary of Elections Jonathan Marks sent an email to counties advising them to count ballots even if the envelope did not have the last two digits of the year. Courts have interpreted the state’s date requirement to mean that it must have a date between the time the ballot was mailed to the voter and Election Day.

“It is the opinion of the Department that, if the date written on the ballot can reasonably be interpreted as ‘the day the (voter) completed the declaration,’ the ballot should not be rejected for having an ‘incorrect’ date or for being ‘without date,’” Marks wrote.

Not all counties followed that advice.

Colin Sisk, Beaver County elections director, said the county viewed the department’s decision to pre-populate the “20” in the year field as an indication that the voter needed to fill out the year section. He also said that if a voter from last year had only written “20” for the year, the ballot likely would have been rejected, since it would have been assumed to refer to 2020. So, for consistency, the county decided not to accept the ballots .

The council also arrived late in the election cycle.

“I know a lot of us (directors) said ‘Shit, this is late’ and ‘Shit, this change is something that can be litigated,'” Sisk said of his reaction when he received the email on April 19. four days before the elections.

Sisk was right. One candidate sued Luzerne County over its decision to count ballots, and the Center County Republican Party did the same there.

The Common Pleas Court judge who heard the Central County case dismissed it Friday as improperly filed, without addressing the county’s decision to count the ballots. In Luzerne County, the judge ruled that the county did the right thing by counting the ballots, but that decision is now on appeal to Commonwealth Court.

Counties were divided on whether to accept the ballots, and that decision appears to have had an impact on their rejection rate.

Votebeat and Spotlight PA analyzed 36 counties that had adequate data to determine the change in rejection rates from year to year. Among them, counties that chose to count ballots missing a “24” for the year had lower average rejection rates than in previous primaries, while counties that chose not to count these ballots on average virtually They had no changes in the rejection rate. and most saw an increase.

“I think they were trying to make it easier for people, so they didn’t put in his year of birth, but it confused people in my opinion,” said Karen Lupon, Jefferson County’s chief clerk and elections director, though she added who believes the redesign managed to reduce “naked ballots” that were returned without a secret envelope.

November is the next big test

The State Department did not say whether it plans to make any changes to the envelope before the November elections as a result of this issue.

Whether the lower rejection rate holds in November will be the next big test, both for the redesigned envelope and for recent educational efforts by the department, campaigns and other groups seeking to inform them about how to cast their ballot correctly.

“It’s a good sign to see pushbacks going down,” said Kyle Miller, a policy advocate with the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy. “I’m really interested to see what happens in general, when there are more casual voters.”

Compared to general election voters, those who participated in the April primaries — during which many high-profile races were uncontested — were more likely to be attentive to rules and educational efforts.

At least one county anticipated that the missing “24” would be a problem. In Bucks County, election officials opted to preprint the entire year on the ballot, rather than just “20,” as the State Department recommended.

“As a result, I think we saw fewer errors in the date than we would have had,” Bucks County Attorney Amy Fitzpatrick said at an April 30 board of elections meeting.

Lycoming County can do the same. Its elections director, Forrest Lehman, said he has been in contact with the vendor that prints its return envelopes to ask if it would be possible to add the “24” to envelopes that were already printed.

The issue could be moot in November if the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center prevail in their lawsuit seeking to overturn the requirement that voters write a date on the return envelope.

About this data: The State Department estimated that the reduction in the rejection rate from the 2023 primaries to the 2024 primaries was 13.5%. The department used an analysis method that adjusted the rejection numbers for the 2023 primary to match what they likely would have been if that election had had the same turnout as in 2024. After consulting with several political scientists who regularly analyze the data elections, Votebeat and Spotlight PA opted to use a different method that directly compared the actual rejection rate for each election, although political scientists said both methods are legitimate. Votebeat and Spotlight PA’s calculation also included ballots marked with “pending” codes in the state’s mail-in ballot tracking system, something the State Department did not do. All but one county had certified their election at the time of Votebeat and Spotlight PA’s analysis, which was not the case at the time the department opted to exclude “pending” ballots.

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