Technical mistakes, secrecy envelope errors led to Lehigh Valley mail-in ballots being rejected
Nearly 1,300 voters in the Lehigh Valley saw their mail-in ballots rejected in last November’s general election over technical mistakes regarding secrecy envelopes, signatures and dates, new state data shows.
The number — 1,296 — represents a small fraction of the approximately 73,000 mail-in ballots returned in Lehigh and Northampton counties for the Nov. 8 election.
But it underscores the confusion that exists over a voting option that has been available since 2020 in Pennsylvania.
Matt Munsey, chair of the Northampton County Democratic Committee, said the number of rejected ballots is not surprising. He said people have long made mistakes on absentee ballots, which are still an option for people to vote by mail if they are going to be out of town.
“The difference is now it’s a much larger number of people voting by mail, including lots of people who have never done it before,” Munsey said.
Munsey said a lack of clarity in Act 77, the 2019 law that allowed mail-in voting, has added to the confusion, creating a situation where some county elections offices allow voters to fix their errors while others outight reject them.
“The big picture is there is a lot of difficulty surrounding the whole thing,” Munsey said.
Statewide, 16,154 voters saw their mail-in ballots rejected, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Some 8,250 were missing secrecy envelopes, meaning they were not first placed in a smaller envelope meant to keep votes private until they are counted. The rest — 7,904 — were for missing signatures, missing dates or had incorrect dates.
The bulk of the rejections in Lehigh and Northampton counties – 972 – were for ballots that were missing secrecy envelopes. Instead, the ballots were put directly into postmarked, return envelopes, which also contained a declaration section that voters must sign and date for the vote to be legal.
Lehigh had 409 of the so-called naked ballots while Northampton tallied 563.
The Lehigh Valley had 324 ballots that either did not have a signature or a date or had an incorrect date. The breakdown for those rejected mail-in ballots was one in Lehigh and 323 in Northampton.
The majority of the rejected ballots were for people registered as Democrats, who as a whole vastly outnumbered Republicans, independents and other party members in their requests.
In Lehigh County, 276 Democrats, 72 Republicans and 61 “other” voters lacked secrecy envelopes. In Northampton, 382 Democrats, 105 Republicans and 76 “other” voters did not use the secrecy sleeves.
In Lehigh, only one person – a Democrat – lacked the date or signature requirements. In Northampton, 216 Democrats, 78 Republicans and 29 “other” voters lacked proper declarations.
Munsey said he was an observer on Nov. 8 and got to see rejected mail-in ballots.
He said one of the issues with incorrect dates stemmed from voters putting what seemed to be their birthdays as a date.
Others got confused over the actual date they signed the return envelope, using the wrong numeric number for the month.
For example, if they signed the ballot on Oct. 10, they wrote 9/10 or 11/10, which put them out of the range of acceptance.
Munsey said the reason this was an obvious error is because return envelopes are stamped when received. Thus counties can tell the exact date ballots arrived and whether they arrived on time.
Curing ballots not a guarantee
Legally, counties in Pennsylvania are not required to contact voters who make mistakes — and not all do. Act 77 is silent on the subject of what is called curing a ballot — neither allowing or banning the practice.
A Republican-led lawsuit to have curing declared illegal resulted in a Sept. 29 opinion from the state Commonwealth Court denying an injunction to stop the practice.
The state Supreme Court, down a member due to the death of Chief Justice Max Baer in September, deadlocked 3-3 on the issue on Oct. 21, which left the lower court ruling in place with no opinion.
Lehigh and Northampton counties are among those that permit curing.
It’s something they cemented legally in a settlement over a federal lawsuit that sought to count disqualified ballots in the Democratic primary race for the 14th Senate District, which straddles both counties. The rejected ballots lacked secrecy envelopes or were mailed on time but arrived after the 8 p.m. primary deadline.
The lawsuit was dropped – and the ballots not counted – when Lehigh and Northampton agreed to alert voters if they cast a naked ballot, giving them time to fix their mistake.
Becky Bartlett, Northampton County’s deputy director of administration, said Northampton had already been reaching out to voters who made technical mistakes.
Northampton contacts voters with signature or date issues through Pennsylvania’s Statewide Uniform Registry of Elections, which includes a database of voters.
A bar code on the return envelope – meant to ensure people don’t vote twice – allows counties to scan it into the state’s database. The voter is then automatically alerted via an email of an issue. If the voter did not provide an email when requesting a mail-in ballot, Northampton County will send the voter a letter.
Missing secrecy envelope: 972
No signature/undated/misdated: 324
Source: Pennsylvania Department of State
The lack of secrecy envelopes isn’t as easily resolved.
Election office staff can often tell if a ballot is missing a secrecy envelope by the lighter weight of the return envelope.
At one point, Northampton alerted voters of missing secrecy envelopes right away, Bartlett said.
But concern that the practice might constitute illegal pre-canvassing led to a legal opinion that Northampton should wait until the mail-in ballots are officially opened, starting at 7 a.m. on Election Day, to alert voters.
Bartlett said a list of voters is created on Election Day and given to their respective county political parties, who can then arrange for voters to be contacted about fixing the problem.
Bartlett could not provide data on how many voters responded to emails, letters or contact from political parties.
While he applauds Northampton’s efforts to alert voters, Munsey said the contact list system is not ideal.
Rejected Ballots by Party
Missing secrecy envelope
Source: Pennsylvania Department of State
Getting a list on Election Day makes it difficult to reach voters in time for them to fix their mistakes as Munsey said the list doesn’t include contact information.
“You have to look them up and get phone numbers,” Munsey said, adding that the process takes time when volunteers are still trying to get people to the polls.
Joe Vichot, chair of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, said his party received at least 100 names on Nov. 8, including those with signature and date issues.
Vichot likewise said it’s difficult to reach the voters, especially if the list doesn’t arrive until late afternoon as was the case on Nov. 8. He recalled one of the voters was a 90-year-old man. “He wasn’t going to rush down to fix his ballot,” Vichot said.
Munsey said the main problem is the lack of clarity on issues that weren’t addressed in Act 77 and still remain unresolved. He said the law was rushed through as a compromise, and believes lawmakers should fix the problem.
However, he doesn’t see that happening any time soon with a Republican-controlled Senate and what could be a Democratic-controlled House once three special elections are held next month.
Vichot agrees the state law has led to confusion and a lack of consistency. However, he said, the law is clear that mail-in ballots must be signed and dated. He also said the law does not explicitly allow curing.
“So it’s (curing) been subjectively just spread out on how each county wants to do it,” Vichot said. “I don’t like that. Just like the rest of the law, everything needs to be standardized.”
Having a standard process, he said, would eliminate worries over the integrity that many voters have over mail-in ballots.
As he sees it, voters should not be allowed to fix their ballots. Instead, he said, emphasis should be put on teaching voters the correct way of doing it.
“Educate people on all of it – on how to vote, where to vote. Education is the way to go,” he said.
Bartlett said Northampton is trying to make the process as clear as possible.
“For mail-in ballots, Northampton County has adopted a brightly-colored envelope for the secrecy ballot and, in the instructions, the section about making sure the ballot is inserted in the secrecy envelope is bolded and in a contrasting color,” said Bartlett, who announced she is leaving her position on Jan. 27.
This story first appeared in Armchair Lehigh Valley, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.