Pennsylvania redesigned its mail-in ballot envelopes amid litigation. Some voters still tripped up

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A form that Pennsylvania voters must fill out on the outside of return envelopes has been redesigned, but that didn’t stop some voters from filling it out accurately for this week’s primaries, leaving some votes not counting, election officials said .

The most significant was the first use of the redesigned form on the back of return envelopes that was unveiled late last year during a lawsuit over whether ballots are valid when they arrive to be counted in envelopes that do not contain accurate, handwritten dates.

The most recent ruling was a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel’s decision last month upholding the date mandate. The groups and individuals who filed suit to challenge the requirement are currently asking the full 3rd Circuit to reconsider the case.

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt said at an election night news conference that his office will monitor the county-by-county vote tabulation to see how many ballots are thrown out as a result. That will help determine if the new design has done more harm than good.

The new design provides spaces for the month and day and allows voters to enter the last two digits of the year. The forms ask voters with a pre-printed “20” and require them to complete the year by adding “24.”

“I think we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback” about the redesign, Schmidt said, “and I’m confident it will result in fewer voters making unintentional, minor mistakes that are flawed in nature.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represents several voter groups in the federal lawsuits, has said that more than 10,000 ballots in the state were disqualified in 2022 based on what opponents of the mandate consider a pointless paperwork error. Older voters are disproportionately more likely to send ballot envelopes with incorrect or missing dates. Democrats use mail-in voting much more than Republicans in Pennsylvania.

Votebeat Pennsylvania reported Monday that a top state elections administrator told counties in an email last week that they should count ballots “if the date on the ballot can reasonably be interpreted as ‘the day (the voter) made the declaration entered’.”

Lycoming County is not following that advice, and county elections director Forrest Lehman said his experience during the primary suggests the changes did not help more votes were counted.

“I’m sure there are some counties that choose to count these, but there are also many that don’t,” Lehman said. “And there is simply no denying that the design of these envelopes created a new way to record a date that immediately became a large percentage of all incorrect dates.”

During the 2022 primary, Lycoming County has set aside 49 ballots. This month, Lycoming reserved 48, including 22 with incorrect dates. Half of them were declared invalid because the voter had not written the last two digits of the year.

“Whatever they thought this would accomplish in terms of changing voter behavior, it didn’t change anything,” he said, other than requiring counties to buy new envelopes.

Berks County set aside 91 primary mail-in ballots because the return envelope had incorrect dates on it, 32 because there was no date attached and 129 because they were not signed or because someone — usually a spouse — signed someone else’s ballot. Berks saw nearly 52,000 total votes cast, including more than 16,000 by mail.

By the time the outer envelope email from the State Department arrived last week, Berks County spokesperson Stephanie Nojiri said, officials there had already decided to count those who miss the “24” for the year, because the new envelopes were all printed in 2024.

Allegheny County had already received nearly 1,400 incorrect ballots when officials there received the new guidance from the state on Friday, spokeswoman Abigail Gardner said. The most common problem was the lack of the “24” year.

Allegheny election workers had contacted voters by returning their ballots with letters explaining why, and about 800 were corrected. After receiving guidance from the Department of State, the county simply began counting the envelopes without the “24” on the date portion of the envelopes.