On Monday, Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s legislative leaders warning of an impending election meltdown. Deeley, who oversees her city’s elections, noted that state law requires voters to mail back their ballots in two envelopes: an inner “secrecy sleeve” and an outer envelope. In the past, Philadelphia counted “naked ballots”—those mail-in ballots returned without their secrecy sleeve. On Sept. 17, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that naked ballots are invalid and may not be counted. Extrapolating from the number of people who returned naked ballots in past elections, Deeley estimated that the court’s decision could disenfranchise up to 100,000 voters in November. Given that Donald Trump won the state by 44,000 votes in 2016, it could also spur a post-election legal battle “the likes of which we have not seen since Florida in 2000,” she wrote.
While Deeley saw the looming rejection of 100,000 ballots as a crisis, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders likely see it as an opportunity. Mail-in ballots from nonwhite voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) are rejected at far higher rates than white voters’. So the court’s decision will disproportionately affect Democrats. Deeley pleaded with the Legislature to repeal the law invalidating naked ballots, noting that it’s “a vestige of the past”: Secrecy sleeves were designed to prevent officials from learning a voter’s identity when counting their ballot, but Pennsylvania now uses an industrialized vote-counting process that preserves anonymity without the need for a special ballot sleeve. Republicans do not care. They have given no indication that they will modify the law to ensure that naked ballots are counted.
Pennsylvania’s naked ballot crisis is an extreme example of a problem that’s going to plague the nation in the wake of the current presidential election. Because of the pandemic, Americans are voting by mail at unprecedented rates—which means election officials are throwing out ballots at unprecedented rates, as well. More than 534,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in the 2020 primaries, and many were tossed because of a minor voter error. Many of these rules are unfair and pointless and seem designed to trip people up, but we have to learn to follow them if we want the chance to change them. Voting by mail is a skill: It requires practice, and everyone can improve with some tutoring and preparation. There are more ways to mess up a mail-in ballot than a ballot you cast in-person. But voters who follow these 10 steps should rest easy knowing that their ballots won’t be nullified on a technicality.
1. Don’t open your envelope until you’re ready to vote.
Your absentee ballot will arrive with either one or two envelopes; you must use them to return your ballot. If you use a regular envelope, your vote may be tossed. Plan to open your envelope, fill out your ballot, and place it in the official envelope (or envelopes) all in one sitting. If you leave it lying around, you might lose key materials.
2. Read the instructions!
Your absentee ballot materials will include instructions. Read them! Consider marking up the instructions with a pen or highlighter like you might on an exam. Absentee voting involves several steps, and not all of them are obvious. The instructions are there for a reason.
3. Fill out your ballot slowly and carefully.
Most jurisdictions require voters to use a pen when filling out absentee ballots. Be sure to fill in each circle completely. If you accidentally vote for multiple candidates in the same race, or make any stray mark on the ballot, do not send it back. Instead, either request a new absentee ballot or vote in person; either way, tell election officials what happened so they know not to expect your original ballot. It’s legal in every state to obtain a new ballot if you spoil your first one.
4. Figure out if you have a secrecy sleeve, and use it if you do.
As I explained above, in many states, absentee voters are provided two envelopes for their ballots: an outer envelope and an inner envelope, also known as a secrecy sleeve. These states require voters to place their ballots in a secrecy sleeve, then place the secrecy sleeve in the outer envelope. Don’t be naïve—use the sleeve.
5. Sign one or both envelopes.
Some states require voters to sign both the secrecy sleeve and the outer envelope. Others require just one signature, usually on the outer envelope. Be sure to provide one or both signatures, as well as the date, if required. If you provide two signatures, they should be identical. They should also match the signature on your voter registration card; otherwise, in some states, election officials may reject your ballot.
6. Get witness signatures and/or a notarization if necessary.
A minority of states require one or two witnesses to sign and date your absentee ballot envelope. Some waive this requirement if the ballot envelope is notarized. A few require envelopes to be notarized. This list breaks down the witness and notary rules by state, but courts or election officials have suspended these rules in some states due to the pandemic, so check your instructions for details. These rules are entirely useless, but a substantial number of voters forget to follow them every year. In general, your ballot witnesses can be anybody—though postal workers are no longer allowed to serve this role.
7. Seal the outer envelope and affix a stamp, if necessary.
Many states provide prepaid postage to absentee voters, but, unfortunately, some still force voters to pay for their own stamp. The instructions will tell you whether you need to put a stamp on your outer envelope.
8. Place your ballot in the mail—or drop it off in person.
Regardless of whether your state pays for postage, you should think about dropping off your ballot in person to avoid potential Postal Service delays. Slate’s voting guide explains how you can return absentee ballots without relying on the mail. There may be an election office, polling place, or drop box very close to your home.
9. Track your ballot online or by phone.
Whether or not you mail your ballot, you should ensure that it has been received by election officials (ideally well before Nov. 3). Many states now allow voters to track their ballots online. This system will note if a ballot has been “accepted” or “rejected.” If your ballot is rejected, contact local election officials immediately; you may be able to fix the problem. If your state doesn’t allow online ballot tracking, call your local election office and ask for the status of your ballot.
10. Be on the lookout for letters, emails, or phone calls from election officials in the days after the election.
A majority of states now provide a ballot “cure” process that directs election officials to notify voters with faulty ballots and tell them how they can make sure their vote counts. This backstop is especially helpful in states that compare voters’ signatures to confirm their identities. If your ballot is flagged for “signature mismatch,” you may be allowed to prove who you are by other means. Election officials will usually try to contact you by phone, through the mail, or over email. Don’t assume election-related notifications are spam.
Until American politicians reach a bipartisan consensus that voters should not be disenfranchised on a technicality, only you can prevent a replay of Bush v. Gore. Think of mail-in voting like an obstacle course, a series of small challenges that you can overcome with patience and caution, even though they should not exist in the first place. Voting could be the most important thing you do this year. It’s worth taking an extra few minutes to make sure you do it right.