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A stack of mail-in ballot applications in Pennsylvania. Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court ordered state officials last week to throw out mail-in ballots submitted without a required inner "secrecy" envelope in November's election, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

The state of play: The decision went under the radar alongside the simultaneous decision to extend the time that mail-in ballots could be counted, but Philadelphia's top elections official warned state legislators this week that throwing out so-called "naked ballots" could bring "electoral chaos" to the state and cause "tens of thousands of votes" to be thrown out — potentially tipping the presidential election.

  • Pennsylvania requires voters to place their ballots in an unmarked "secrecy" envelope before placing that inside another mailing envelope.
  • Historically, only about 5% of Pennsylvanians have voted by mail as the state had required an excuse to vote absentee. This year marks the first time that the state has adopted no-excuse absentee voting, so many will be voting by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic — and using the double-envelope system — for the first time.
  • The decision to reject "naked ballots" didn't apply during the primary earlier this year, which was the first use of expanded mail-in voting, so it's unclear how widespread the mistake may be. However, 6.4% of ballots were "naked" during last November's municipal election in Philadelphia, which was conducted under the more restrictive absentee system.

Why it matters: Polls have found that more Democrats than Republicans plan to vote by mail, so thrown-out "naked ballots" are more likely to be cast for Joe Biden. President Trump carried Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes in 2016.

  • "Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84 percent chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state — and it gives Biden a 96 percent chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue," FiveThirtyEight's Nathaniel Rakich noted in a recent analysis.
  • If tens of thousands of "naked ballots" are rejected by election officials, it could be enough to swing the result in a tipping-point state.

Driving the news: The issue has taken on such importance that the Democratic National Committee released an ad on Thursday to take Pennsylvania voters through the step-by-step process for completing their mail-in ballot.

The big picture: The Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and other Pennsylvania Republicans filed the lawsuit against some state election rules, including the "naked" ballots.

What they're saying: "[R]ecent actions by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have set Pennsylvania up to be the subject of significant post-election controversy, the likes of which we have not seen since Florida in 2000," Lisa Deeley, the chair of Philadelphia's city commissioners, wrote to state legislators.

  • "I hope you consider this letter as me being a canary in the coal mine."

The bottom line: Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman called the situation "a foreseeable train wreck."

Read Deeley's letter.

Go deeper

Dec 14, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Early voting begins in Georgia's key Senate runoffs

Voters line outside the High Museum polling station in Atlanta, Georgia on the first day of voting in the state's Senate runoffs. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

People lined up outside polling places across Georgia on Monday for the first day of early voting in the state's two runoff elections that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

The big picture: More than 1.2 million people have already requested mail-in absentee ballots and more than 260,000 have returned them as of Monday, per data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project.

Updated Dec 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Electoral College affirms Biden's victory

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President-elect Biden officially received the majority of Electoral College votes on Monday, further solidifying his victory even though the outcome of the election has been known for weeks.

Why it matters: The Electoral College result affirms Biden as the next president after weeks of President Trump's false accusations that the election was stolen from him, dozens of failed legal challenges from the Trump campaign, and protests threatening the safety of states' electors.

Trial for ex-officers charged with abetting Floyd murder delayed until 2022

The memorial in George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 21. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The trial for three former Minneapolis police officers charged by state prosecutors with aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd has been moved to March 7, 2022, AP reports.

Why it matters: Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said he wanted to move the date from Aug. 23 to accommodate a new federal case against the officers and Derek Chauvin, who has already been convicted on state charges for Floyd's murder.