Pennsylvania, in effort to reduce errors, revamps mail-in ballot

mail-in ballot
Mail-in ballots are prepared to go out to voters Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, at an election facility at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Jack Tomczuk

Mail-in ballots, and their accompanying directions, will look a bit different when they arrive in mailboxes ahead of the next election.

State officials on Wednesday issued guidance directing counties to redesign ballots for the 2024 primary, scheduled to be held in April. The changes are aimed at eliminating errors, such as a missing date, that have disqualified thousands of votes in recent elections.

The new ballots will feature coloring aimed at allowing voters to distinguish between the outer declaration and inner secrecy envelopes; full-page instructions with graphics; and coloring highlighting where voters must sign and date the declaration envelope, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

For the date on the declaration envelope, the number 20 will be pre-filled into the year section, to dissuade voters from writing down their own birthday, instead of the current date, officials said.

This image shows an example of the voter’s declaration on the back of the outer return envelope.Pennsylvania Department of State

“We have seen thousands of mail ballots not be counted because of unintended technical errors voters made when completing their ballot,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt said Wednesday in a statement. “Our hope is that these new materials will better assist voters in making sure their completed mail ballot packet is filled out correctly and can be counted.”

Counties will have some discretion to alter the state’s template, though local election officials will need to request a variance for certain changes, the directive says.

About 17,000 votes – or 2.8% of the total mail-in and absentee ballots – in May’s primary were thrown out, according to the state department. Nearly half of those votes were rejected for arriving after 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Twenty percent of the disqualified ballots did not have a date; 15% lacked the smaller secrecy envelope; 8% had an incorrect date; and nearly 5% did not have a signature, the department said.

In recent years, the City Commissioners have published lists in the days before an election showing the names of voters with errors on their ballots to give them time to correct their votes. Ahead of the Nov. 7 general election, the commissioners noted more than 2,000 mistakes.

Legal wrangling over Pennsylvania’s ballot system has been ongoing since the 2020 election, when the state began allowing no-excuse mail-in votes and supporters of former President Donald Trump contested the results of the general election.

In the most recent ruling, last week, a federal judge decided that mail ballots without accurate dates must be counted in Pennsylvania in order to comply with civil rights law, according to the Associated Press.