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How to make sure your vote still counts if you think you submitted a ‘naked ballot’ in Pennsylvania

Voters who submit naked or otherwise flawed mail ballots can still use a provisional ballot on Election Day.

A Pennsylvania mail ballot for the 2020 general election.
A Pennsylvania mail ballot for the 2020 general election.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Worried that you submitted a “naked ballot” in Pennsylvania? You can still make sure your vote is counted.

Voters who turned in mail ballots that they fear could be rejected because they made a mistake — such as not using the inner secrecy envelope — can go to the polls on Election Day and use a provisional ballot that would ultimately be counted, the Pennsylvania Department of State said this week.

“If the voter believes that he/she has not returned or cast the ballot successfully or otherwise contests his/her ballot status, the poll worker shall provide the voter a provisional ballot,” the department, which oversees elections, said in new guidance to local officials issued Wednesday.

That provides a solution for voters who may inadvertently turn in a naked or otherwise flawed ballot and realize it before Nov. 3.

Pennsylvania uses a two-envelope system for its mail ballots, with voters placing their ballot inside an anonymous secrecy envelope that then goes inside a mailing envelope. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last month that counties must reject “naked ballots” —those missing the inner secrecy envelope. Elections officials warned that more than 100,000 ballots could be rejected under that decision, prompting major voter education campaigns.

» READ MORE: How ‘naked ballots’ in Pennsylvania could cost Joe Biden the election

Ballots can be rejected for other reasons, including missing a signature or arriving after the deadline. (The State Supreme Court court also extended the deadline so ballots can be counted if they arrive by Friday, Nov. 6 and are either postmarked by the end of Election Day or have no evidence of being sent afterward. Elections officials urge voters to return their ballots as soon as possible, without relying on that deadline, which is still being challenged in court.)

A provisional ballot is a paper ballot that is meant to be used as a last resort when someone’s eligibility to vote is in question — such as if the person’s name is not found in the poll books or the person doesn’t have the proper identification when voting for the first time. Provisional ballots are set aside and counted only after officials determine the vote should be.

How to use a provisional ballot if you turned in a naked ballot or other flawed ballot

  1. Go to your polling place on Nov. 3. Don’t forget to check your polling place location, as it may have changed from past elections. You may want to check the status of your ballot to know whether it’s been marked as received by the county. Know that if it has, you might be listed in the poll books as having voted already and poll workers might initially tell you so.

  2. When you go to check in and give the poll workers your name, let them know you returned a mail ballot but would like to use a provisional ballot. You can explain more if you want, especially if they are confused, but you shouldn’t need to. If the judge of elections is unclear about what to do, ask for them to contact the county elections office for guidance.

  3. Poll workers will provide you a provisional ballot envelope. Fill it out as the judge of elections and minority inspector, two of the poll workers, watch. The poll workers then fill out the envelope and give you the actual provisional ballot.

  4. Fill out the provisional ballot, following all the instructions carefully, and put it inside the secrecy envelope. Place that secrecy envelope inside the provisional ballot envelope.

  5. Complete the envelope, again with the two poll workers watching. They’ll sign it, as well, and give you a receipt with your ballot number on it.

  6. You’re done. Wait for votes to be counted. If your original mail ballot is rejected, the online status tracker will say so and you will receive a rejection notification if you provided your email address when you applied for the mail ballot. Don’t panic, because you expected the rejection. After about a week, you can check the status of your provisional ballot online to know whether it was counted.

Be prepared for voting to take longer using a provisional ballot than on the machines, especially if things are busy and the necessary poll workers are handling other situations.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about in-person and mail voting in Pennsylvania

And if poll workers are confused — because remember, you might be listed in the poll books as “Ballot Cast/Not Eligible” and most people in that situation have already properly voted — remember to calmly explain the situation and request a provisional ballot.

There is, of course, one way to avoid any of this potential trouble: Follow the instructions carefully in filling out your mail ballot, including using the secrecy envelope, signing and dating the outer mailing envelope, and returning your ballot on time.