Top election officials in Philadelphia are urging the GOP-controlled state legislature to do away with secrecy envelopes required for so-called naked ballots — mailed in by absentee voters — warning that if they don't take action, more than an estimated 100,000 ballots statewide could go uncounted in the upcoming elections.
The envelopes are meant to shield voter selections on mail-in ballots from the eyes of poll workers who are counting them. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a request by Democrats earlier this week to explicitly state that ballots without the secrecy envelope will still be counted, even as Republicans, including President Trump, push to invalidate such ballots.
“When you consider that the 2016 Presidential Election in Pennsylvania was decided by just over 44,000 votes, you can see why I am concerned,” Lisa Deeley, chairwoman of the three-member board overseeing Philadelphia's elections, wrote in a letter to the state GOP.
Some 30,000 to 40,000 mail-in ballots could arrive without secrecy envelopes in Philadelphia alone in November's presidential election, Deeley estimated, and the state Supreme Court's interpretation of current law forces election officials to throw out the so-called “naked ballots.”
The ruling was part of a broader decision on contested elements of the state's election law, and Republicans on Monday said they will appeal one element of the court's decision — extending the deadline to receive ballots by three days — to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But as far as the secrecy envelopes, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, says he believes "this issue is settled for this election," signaling that legislative change by the GOP-controlled legislature is unlikely.
Cutler's comments come even as Deeley warned that “it is the naked ballot ruling that is going to cause electoral chaos.”
Since vote counting has shifted from poll workers to machinery, a secrecy envelope is no longer needed and will actually slow down vote counting, Deeley argued.
She explained that extraction desks and equipment allow 12,000 ballots to be counted in an hour. However, if the extra envelopes were eliminated, the Board of Elections could double its ballot removal to 24,000 an hour and scan 32,000 ballots an hour, Deeley said.
"At these speeds, there is no opportunity to stop, or even slow down, and identify how an individual voted — anonymity is maintained," Deeley said.
Pennsylvania is one of 16 states that still require a secrecy envelope, and Deeley said it "exists now only as a means to disenfranchise well-intentioned Pennsylvania voters."
Democratic voters are two times as likely to mail in ballots as compared to their Republican counterparts come November, according to a recent NBCLX/YouGov poll.
Data collected from a pool of 3,244 respondents found that 65% of Democrats say they will vote by mail, while only 35% of Republicans plan to do so. Meanwhile, 49% of independents say they will also mail in their ballots, in part due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
More than 3 million voters in Pennsylvania are expected to cast ballots by mail this year, more than 10 times as the 2016 presidential election, when Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by slightly more than 44,000 votes — less than 1 percentage point.
Polls show another close race between Democrat Joe Biden and Trump in Pennsylvania.
Ahead of the state primaries in May, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf allowed election workers to count ballots without a secrecy envelope, but the guidance was rescinded following the election.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.