Election 2020

Beware the ‘naked ballot’: Follow these steps to make sure your PA mail vote counts

If you don’t know about the new rule, it’s easy to mess this up.

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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Update: What if your mail ballot got wet in the rain? Here’s a Twitter thread that explains. Basically: Let it dry, making sure to keep the envelope flaps open so they don’t seal shut. If it looks fine, like a reasonable person would be able to use it, fill it out and send it in. If not, request a new one at your local election office or satellite.

Officials and experts are worried a last-minute change in regulations in Pennsylvania could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters in the November election.

The new rule deals with so-called “naked ballots.”

Basically, if your ballot isn’t dressed properly, you can kiss your vote goodbye. It won’t be counted. (Scroll down for step-by-step instructions.)


What’s all this about? Pennsylvania voters must place completed ballots inside a provided “secrecy envelope” before putting them in the outer envelope. The mandate comes from a recent Pa. Supreme Court decision, and is meant to ensure vote integrity.

Various PSAs have been put out to make sure folks remember this, and we’ve got a few slogans for you to vote on here. But first, let’s break it down.

In the past, election boards in Pennsylvania didn’t necessarily toss ballots missing the inner envelope — but it also wasn’t a big issue, because not many people used them. Before this year, you needed a valid reason to vote “absentee,” like being out of town on Election Day, or in the military, or physically unable to make it to the polls.

Not anymore. Though it’s been around in several other states for years, this is the first general election with no-excuse mail voting in Pa., and more than two million people have applied.

Make the online request here by Oct. 27 and your county election board will mail your ballot out. You can check the status using the Pa. Dept. of State’s ballot lookup tool. (If your application is listed as pending, the ballot is en route. Here’s what to do if you applied already and want to switch to voting in person.)

You can also pick up a mail ballot in person at your county election office. Some counties, like Philadelphia, have set up satellite election offices where you can request, fill out and drop the mail ballot right there. Officials will be around to answer any questions on the spot and help you understand the instructions. Other resources are available too, like an Oct. 8 hotline to ask questions from licensed attorneys.

If you’re getting your ballot via the USPS, or will fill it out at home, that’s where confusion could arise. Here’s how to do it right.

What’s in the package

When getting your ballot via the mail, you’ll receive a thick envelope from your county election office. Here’s what’ll be in it:

  • The ballot itself
  • An instruction card
  • A secrecy envelope
  • An outer envelope
  • A sheet explaining any other ballot questions

Fill out the ballot clearly, using black or blue ink

Ballot designs vary from county to county, and the non-statewide candidates on it will depend on exactly where you live. What does not vary is this: you must use a blue or black ink pen to fill it out.

Also — apologies for triggering any PTSD from the SATs here — make sure each oval is darkened in fully, and don’t make any marks on the ballot outside those ovals.

What if you fill out that oval and realize it was the wrong one? Or if your kid or cat knocked your hand while you were doing it and caused a big scribble across the page? You can get a replacement ballot from the county election office. Philadelphians can request a replacement here or at a satellite office starting Oct. 6.

Make sure to fill in each oval completely, using blue or black ink

Make sure to fill in each oval completely, using blue or black ink

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Place ballot in the ‘secrecy’ envelope

It’s not too hard to differentiate between the two envelopes. The secrecy envelope is the one that’s mostly blank but says “Official Election Ballot” on the front. It’s also the smaller of the two.

Fold up your filled-out ballot and place it inside the secrecy envelope, then seal it. Failure to “dress” your ballot this way will result in it being discarded.

This is the envelope you might overlook — so make sure to use it, or your vote won't count

This is the envelope you might overlook — so make sure to use it, or your vote won't count

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Put it all in the outer envelope

The outer envelope is the larger one, with lots of markings on it.

The wavy election logo will be stamped on the front, next to the “no postage necessary” mark on the top right corner. The front will also say “Business Reply Mail” and will have the address of your county election board. The back will also be covered with wording — that’s part of the next step.

Take the secrecy envelope containing your filled out ballot, and put the whole thing in the outer envelope, then close and seal the flap.

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Sign the back of the outer envelope

Give yourself a pat on the back, you’re almost done. Just need to fill out and sign the voter declaration on the back.

This certifies your vote is coming from you — and that you are who you say you are: a registered, valid voter in your current district. It also makes sure you understand that once you submit this ballot, you will not be able to vote in person on Election Day (unless you bring in the ballot AND both envelopes to be voided).

You might notice there are two places to sign. One is for people who filled out their ballot themselves, the majority of folks. (You can only have someone else fill it out for you if that’s already part of your voter registration file, or if you get a separate document from the county election board in advance.)

So, put your autograph next to the appropriate X, write down the date, and print your name and address.

Note: Don’t worry too much about your signature matching the one on file. In the same decision that made secrecy envelopes a requirement, the Pa. Supreme Court said a handwriting mismatch alone is not reason enough to disqualify a ballot.

Be sure to fill out and sign the declaration on the back of the outer envelope

Be sure to fill out and sign the declaration on the back of the outer envelope

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Submit your vote

All that’s left is to hand it all over. Just like requesting a ballot, you can do that two ways — via U.S. mail or in person.

If you’re using the postal service, you don’t need to affix a stamp. Just drop the envelope into any mailbox or a slot at any post office. Ideally, you’ll want to do this at least two weeks before Election Day.

Ballots sent via U.S. mail will count if they’re received before 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6 (as long as they’re postmarked before Nov. 3.) If your ballot materials show a different deadline, don’t fret. Many were printed before the Pa. Supreme Court extended the date.

You can also hand over your completed and double-enveloped ballot in person. In every Pa. county, you can do this at the election board office. And many counties are planning to set up alternate drop-off points — like the satellite offices in Philadelphia, which will be open through Oct. 27.

To chat with a live person about any question you have regarding voting, text EQUALINFO to 73224.


Want some more? Explore other Election 2020 stories.

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Voting, Elections