The Huge Importance of the Secrecy Envelope for Mail-In Voting

There are two — yes, two — envelopes involved in the mail-in voting process. And the PA Supreme Court has ruled that your vote will be trashed if you don't use both.

the secrecy envelope, which is a hugely important part of the Pennsylvania mail-in ballot process

If you forget to use the secrecy envelope for your Pennsylvania mail-in ballot, your vote will not be counted.

Before the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, none of us had ever heard the term “hanging chads.” And in the lead-up to the presidential election two decades later, we’ve been introduced to the terms “privacy envelope” and “naked ballots.” No, they’re not nearly as silly sounding as “hanging chads” (well, your eight-year old might have a good laugh at “naked ballots”), but they could very well decide November’s election.

Here’s the deal.

If you’re voting by mail in Pennsylvania, the little package that will (hopefully) show up in your mailbox will include your mail-in ballot and the no-postage-required return envelope. But it will also include — and here’s the hugely important part — an additional envelope. This is the aforementioned secrecy envelope.

Because nothing can be simple in 2020, especially when it comes to the presidential election, you can’t just stick your completed ballot into the return envelope and drop it in the mail or in one of those drop boxes that recently debuted in Philadelphia. (Go here for a complete list of those drop box locations). No, that would be too easy.

a photo of the secrecy envelope, part of the mail-in ballot process in Pennsylvania

The all-important secrecy envelope

You have to stick your completed mail-in ballot into the secrecy envelope, seen above. Then you seal the secrecy envelope. Then you stick the secrecy envelope inside of the return envelope. And then you seal the return envelope (again, with the secrecy envelope stowed away inside) and complete the declaration on the outside of it. Then — and only then — can you submit your mail-in ballot. Without the secrecy envelope, your mail-in ballot is a, voila, naked ballot.

This may sound like a pretty simple process. Oh, I just stick the piece of paper into the one envelope and then I stick that envelope into the other envelope. And, in principle, it is simple. The instructions are basically less complicated than a game of Go Fish.

But when I went to one of those new voting centers in Philly last week to apply for, receive, and submit my mail-in ballot (it took me less than 20 minutes!), I have to admit: I almost forgot to use the secrecy envelope.

I’m very used to sticking a piece of paper into an envelope — well, inasmuch as anybody is used to this in the 21st Century — but I can’t think of another instance when I had to stick a piece of paper into an envelope and then stick that envelope into another envelope. Fortunately, a staffer at the voting center reminded me to use the secrecy envelope, and so I did.

It seemed ridiculous at the time. Why do I need two frigging envelopes?! But then I learned that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that any ballots that are sent in without the double-envelope treatment won’t get counted. That’s right: If you forget to use your secrecy envelope, no vote for you! So it’s not ridiculous at all.

“We have a massive voter education challenge on our hands right now,” says Pat Christmas, policy director for the Philly-based better-government organization Committee of Seventy. “When we have hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania residents voting this way for the first time ever, we will inevitably have some number that will make a mistake. So we are asking everybody to tell everyone you know: Follow the instructions.”

In retrospect, maybe our election officials should have gone with a less subtle design. Perhaps something more like this:

So what do you do if you find your secrecy envelope in that bin-that-holds-random-things on your kitchen counter, a few days after you submitted your mail-in ballot? Alas, there’s nothing you can do, a representative of the Office of the City Commissioners tells me. “Unfortunately, there is no remedy,” the rep said. In more vulgar parlance, you’re screwed.

Repeat after me: Follow. The. Instructions.

Got questions? Philly Mag is collaborating with Equally Informed Philly, an initiative that will get you answers to your voting questions, sent right to your phone. Text EQUALINFO to 73224 for a personalized answer, like where to find the nearest polling location to you.