Election 2021

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

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

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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Pennsylvania voters, take note: if your ballot isn’t dressed properly, you can kiss your vote goodbye. If it’s not sealed in a secrecy envelope before being placed in the main envelope, it won’t be counted.

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 2020, 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. Millions of voters across Pa. counties used mail ballots in the most recent elections. On average, about 1% of them had to be tossed because they weren’t double-enveloped.

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’s 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 PTSD from the SATs — 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.

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 and date 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 sign and date the declaration on the back of the outer envelope

Adam Bonin

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. 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.

What if your ballot gets wet?

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.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2021 stories.

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Voting, Elections