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PA to Make Mail-In Ballots More User Friendly

With many voters having problems correctly filling out their mail-in ballots, Pennsylvania officials designed new ballots to make the process easier to understand.

A federal judge in western Pennsylvania ruled last week that county boards of elections must accept mail-in ballots with the wrong date. The ruling caused Montgomery County to delay certification of its 2023 election results from Nov. 22 to Dec. 4.

“The canvass and tabulation of undated and improperly dated mail-in ballots was completed on Monday, Nov. 27. In accordance with the election code, the results must be posted for a five-day waiting period before they may be certified,” a county spokeswoman said. In Bucks County, the Board of Elections reversed course Monday and added undated ballots to its totals.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt announced Wednesday that redesigned mail ballot materials will be used in the 2024 primary election. The redesigned envelopes and instruction sheets have revised language to explain to voters how to correctly fill out and return their mail-in ballots. The goal is to decrease voter confusion that can lead to completed ballots being rejected and to help county election workers with efficient mail-in ballot processing.

“Gov. Shapiro has made it clear that the commonwealth should help people succeed, not get in their way. 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,” Schmidt said. “The Shapiro administration is committed to allowing every eligible Pennsylvanian 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.”

The most common reasons for mail ballot rejection in the 2023 primary were arriving after Election Day (46.8 percent of all rejected ballots), lack of a date (20.3 percent), lack of a secrecy envelope (14.9 percent), incorrect date (8.4 percent), and lack of a signature (4.7 percent).

However, critics remain skeptical of the mail-in ballot system.

“If either Gov. Shapiro or Secretary Schmidt won $100 million in the Pennsylvania lottery, I wonder if they would sign the lottery ticket in pencil (as they are suggesting voters mark their ballots) and drop it into the mail. Of course not. Yet they continue to state that mail ballots ‘strengthen our democracy’ as if the more times they say it, they can make it true,” said Linda Kerns, an election lawyer.

“The number of times Pennsylvania has had to tweak this mail ballot process (and the number of lawsuits challenging the flaws) demonstrate the inherent weakness of the system. Shapiro and Schmidt can spend oodles and oodles of taxpayer money revising this glitch-ridden debacle, but mail ballots will never be as secure as showing up in person, no matter how many fancy, color-coded forms their high-paid consultants develop,” said Kerns.

Joy Schwartz, a Republican who ran for Delaware County Council this year and has been demanding the county report the results of required two percent elections audits, was even more blunt.

“Redesigning mail-in ballots to make them more secure is like putting lipstick on a pig. Gov. Shapiro cannot fix an inherently fraudulent system, and why would he want to? The half-way measures he is proposing will not restore confidence in elections or in him,” said Schwartz. “Any remaining faith his misguided Republican supporters may have had in Gov. Shapiro’s intentions to play fair should have been dashed by his recent scheme to inflate Pennsylvania’s dirty voter rolls by linking voter registration to driver’s licenses and undermining the legislature.”

“Any hopes the Pennsylvania GOP has entertained in attempts at out-harvesting the Democrats with mail-in ballots should have evaporated in the early hours of Nov. 8. Until the legislators come to their senses and repeal the mess that is Act 77 (which allowed mail-in ballots), all central counting centers, where the citizens cannot meaningfully track the injection of ballots into the system, must be closed down.

“All ballots, mail-ins included, should be hand and machine counted and reported from the precinct level, as required by law,” said Schwartz. “No election machines should ever be used without meticulous testing and auditing pre and post-election. No drop boxes should be used to collect them. Counties must stop outsourcing their elections to outside vendors like ERIC, Hart, TotalVote, and KnowInk and clean up their own voter rolls through canvassing.

Diane Houser, a Chester County resident who pointed out problems with the county voter rolls, said, “I agree that the redesigned mail ballot materials to give voters clearer instructions may decrease the number of rejected ballots, but this redesign will not ensure that every legal vote is counted. Why aren’t voter rolls being cleaned up? Why are ballots sent to individuals who moved out of state? What safeguards are in place that ensures that only legal citizens are voting? What safeguards are in place to prevent ballot harvesting? Why is there no ID required to verify voters? Why aren’t signatures verified? What is being done to improve chain of custody? Why can an individual receive more than one ballot? What happens to undeliverable ballots?

“So, if Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt truly wants ‘Voting by mail to be a safe, secure, and accessible way for Pennsylvanians to participate in the election process,’ he has some homework to do,” said Houser.

Schwartz said, “Further centralization of elections, as proposed by Shapiro, will further erode the democratic process and will not ensure integrity. You can say goodbye to the commonwealth and hello to the People’s Republic of Pennsylvania.”

Kerns added, “All that said, voters must realize that in order for their vote to count, they must cast it. So, if you are unsure whether you will be able to vote on election day, voting by mail is an option as long as you fill out the ballot carefully and deliver it yourself to the election office. Last season, we watched the Phillies leave too many runners on base – look where that got us. We should not be leaving votes uncast.”