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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Weighs In On Mail-In Ballot Issue

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court ruled that the state will not accept mail-in ballots that fail to have a second envelope, a secrecy envelope. Ballots without them are called naked ballots, and Democrats worry that this could sway a close election. Here's WHYY's Katie Meyer.

KATIE MEYER, BYLINE: Mira Rabin came very close to making a mistake when she mailed in her ballot for Pennsylvania's primary election in June.

MIRA RABIN: I read the instructions - or thought I did - filled it out, put it in the envelope, sealed it and then looked and said, wait, what's that other envelope?

MEYER: She ended up carefully reopening the ballot, adding the secrecy envelope and trying to reseal the whole thing. It wouldn't stick, so she taped it shut.

RABIN: So then I was worried that it looked like a ballot that had been tampered with. So I signed my name over where the tape was in, like, two places, and I mailed it.

MEYER: Lynn Tatala, who lives outside Pittsburgh, actually did mail her primary ballot without its secrecy envelope. Like Rabin, she realized her mistake after she'd sealed the outer envelope, but unlike Rabin, she decided to leave it.

LYNN TATALA: I don't know why I was so nonchalant at that point. But I was like - I said to my husband - I said, hey, I think I have an extra envelope. Do you think that matters? And then I just, like, put it aside. And we mailed them in, and I never thought about it again.

MEYER: In June, Rabin and Tatala's different decisions didn't matter. Both their ballots were counted. But now there are new rules. And if those two women at opposite ends of the state made those same decisions with general election ballots, Rabin's would probably count and Tatala's wouldn't. Until this month, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that ballots should be discarded without the envelopes, counties were pretty much free to decide what to do.

Paul Gronke, an Oregon political science professor who directs the Early Voting Information Center, says the new mandate is unusual.

PAUL GRONKE: Secrecy envelopes are a part of the package that is used in many states, but I have never heard about ballots being rejected simply because they don't use the secrecy envelopes.

MEYER: It's hard to know how widespread naked ballots are in Pennsylvania. Most counties don't track how many they receive, so it's hard to draw conclusions about what will happen under stricter rules. But Gronke says one thing is certain.

GRONKE: We do actually have clear patterns about what kinds of voters tend to be harmed or disenfranchised the most. It's going to be voters of color, lower-income voters, mobile voters, younger voters. These are the folks who are going to be hurt by these changes.

MEYER: Democratic voters are considered likelier to cast ballots by mail than Republicans. So the party sees these new rules as a much keener threat. Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, says as soon as staff understood the implications of the ruling on secrecy envelopes, they buckled down.

BRENDAN WELCH: This has really been an all-hands-on-deck effort from us and the Biden team and the DNC all kind of working hand in hand to make sure that we spread the word and educate voters.

MEYER: They're pumping out short videos and infographics on social media and reaching out to voters. Celebrities have also been spreading the word. Welch says he feels optimistic that the numbers of people who ultimately forget their secrecy envelopes will be small, but even small numbers could matter. Four years ago, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes, less than 1%.

For NPR News, I'm Katie Meyer in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "WHEN THE BODY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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