Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballots are getting a redesign for 2024, with the aim of reducing voter confusion that can lead to ballots being rejected, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration announced Wednesday.
The design has revised language about how to fill out and return a mail-in ballot, more easily identifiable secrecy envelopes on a yellow background, with watermarking to reduce stray marks, and coloring to make it easier to tell the difference between the inner and outer envelopes.
The outer envelope will have a pre-filled “20” at the beginning of the year field, so that voters write the current year, not their birth year, and full-page instructions with graphics to show how to place the envelopes before mailing. Counties will have the discretion to use a hole punch in the return envelope to help county election workers see when the inner secrecy envelope — now with yellow coloring and a watermark — is missing – or “naked.”
“Governor Shapiro has made it clear that the Commonwealth should help people succeed, not get in their way,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt said in a statement. “In each election cycle since 2020, when no-excuse mail-in voting was implemented in Pennsylvania, we have seen thousands of mail ballots not be counted because of unintended technical errors voters made when completing their ballot.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, rejected mail ballots only accounted for about 3% of the 597,000 mail ballots cast in this year’s primary election, but that meant thousands of votes were disqualified due to small errors. Several recent Pennsylvania elections have seen razor-thin margins, such as the 2022 GOP U.S. Senate primary between Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, which had a margin of 1,000 votes. It triggered an automatic statewide recount. Oz won but lost to Democrat John Fetterman in the general election.
“The Shapiro Administration is committed to giving every eligible Pennsylvanian the opportunity to cast their vote and make their voice heard. 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,” Schmidt said.
He added that the state had worked with counties, vendors and the Center for Civic Design to develop the new ballots. The Maryland-based nonprofit says it’s worked with “hundreds of election officials” to create voting materials using civic design skills to “improve the voting experience, make elections easier to run, and invite participation in elections.”
Pennsylvania’s Act 77 —which allows “no-excuse” mail-in voting— made voting by mail a popular option in 2020, but there have been numerous challenges and disputes over how to consider ballots with return envelopes that are filled out incorrectly. The requirement of a date on the return envelope has caused particular confusion, and consternation, for voting rights groups and the courts.
On Nov. 21, Erie-based U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter ruled that ballots with incorrect or missing states on the return envelope must be counted if they’re received by Election Day. Baxter’s opinion came in response to a lawsuit filed after the November 2022 election by voting rights groups and a handful of individual voters.
The judge found that rejecting ballots for the date requirement violates federal law against disenfranchising voters with requirements not material to their qualifications to vote.
The new mail-in ballots will be rolled out in all 67 counties for the 2024 primary.
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