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EXPLAINER-Why 'naked ballots' loom over U.S. presidential election

Jan Wolfe
·3 mins read

By Jan Wolfe

BOSTON, Sept 24 (Reuters) - A recent Pennsylvania court decision over the use of envelopes used to hide the identity of mail-in voters could have major ramifications for the Nov. 3 election between Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

One official in the state has warned the ruling could lead to confusion and the disenfranchisement of more than 100,000 voters in the crucial battleground state.

Here are some more details on the Sept. 17 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

What did the ruling say?

Pennsylvania uses an unusual two-envelope approach to voting by mail: a completed ballot goes into a “secrecy envelope” that has no identifying information about the voter, and then into a larger return envelope signed by the voter.

Interpreting state election laws, the court said officials should throw away mail-in ballots submitted without a secrecy envelope, known as "naked ballots."

That ruling was a victory for the Trump campaign, which argued in a court filing that naked ballots should be discarded to "ensure the secrecy of absentee and mail-in ballots and to prevent fraud."

Democrats have said that secrecy envelopes are an unnecessary vestige of a time when absentee ballots were counted by officials at polling places. Mail-in ballots in the state are now quickly scanned electronically, making it all but impossible for officials to stop and see how any one person voted, Democrats in the state have said.

Could the ruling help Trump win Pennsylvania?

Yes. Many opinion polls have shown that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail this year.

The polls underscore how mail-in voting has become a political flashpoint. Trump has railed against mail voting, characterizing it without evidence as more fraudulent than in-person voting and a plot by Democrats to rig the election.

Democrats have encouraged voting by mail as a way to cast ballots safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of Americans, including much of the military, have cast absentee ballots by mail for years without problems.

How many "naked ballots" will there be in Pennsylvania?

It is hard to say because 2020 is the first year Pennsylvania is allowing all voters to vote by mail. One Philadelphia election official, Lisa Deeley, has estimated the ruling could lead to more than 100,000 votes not being counted.

In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin of about 44,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast, a difference of 0.72%.

Deeley, who chairs the three-member board overseeing Philadelphia’s elections, wrote in a letter to legislators that the ruling will cause "significant post-election legal controversy, the likes of which we have not seen since Florida in 2000."

How unusual is Pennsylvania's approach?

Fifteen other states use secrecy envelope or sleeves, including the battleground states of Florida and Ohio. But election officials in those states typically do not throw away ballots sent by voters who forget to use a secrecy envelope. (Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Jonathan Oatis)