EDITORIAL: When all else fails, read the instructions before casting your ballot

Apr. 26—THERE is an old saying, "When all else fails, read the instructions."

That's the wise counsel of children's author Agnes Allen (1898-1958). Pennsylvania residents casting ballots by mail would do well to heed them.

Ever since the state legislature adopted no-restriction mail-in voting in 2019 — Pennsylvania previously allowed only for in-person ballots except for absentee voting — the issue has been a political football.

In 2020, the first presidential election that allowed unrestricted mail-in voting, former President Donald Trump finished election night about 700,000 votes ahead of current President Joe Biden.

Over the next four days, as county election departments counted the mail-in ballots, Trump's lead evaporated. Biden won Pennsylvania — which put him over the top in the crucial nationwide Electoral College count — by about 80,000 votes.

The same year, a state Senate race between Nicole Ziccarelli and Jim Brewster presaged the current battle over mail-in ballots. Republican Ziccarelli challenged Democratic incumbent Brewster in the 45th state Senate District, which covers parts of Westmoreland and Allegheny counties.

Voters from both counties submitted incorrect mail-in ballots without putting the dates on the outer envelope. The election board in Allegheny County counted the incorrect ballots but Westmoreland County's did not.

Pennsylvania state Supreme Court ruled that both counties had the right to set their own standard for counting ballots, a federal court upheld the Supreme Court ruling and Brewster remains in the state Senate today.

In 2022, Pennsylvania, acting under an order from the office of Secretary of State Al Schmidt, invalidated approximately 10,000 undated ballots. Under the current standard, Ziccarelli would have won the 2020 election by 93 votes.

A federal circuit court panel ruled in late March that upheld the new state mandate in a decision that is subject to appeal.

Schmidt's office supplemented the dating order by redesigning the mail-in vote ballots in the hope that more voters would fill them in correctly.

The most significant change is the addition of spaces on the form for the date and month, with the number "20" followed by two spaces for the voter to fill in "24" in this year's election, on the outer envelope, which is supposed to contain the privacy envelope, which contains the ballot.

Voters are also supposed to sign the outer envelope for verification purposes.

However, the Associated Press, citing information from Votebeat Pennsylvania reported that changing the ballots might not have had the desired impact.

Lycoming County invalidated 22 mail-in ballots, which prompted election Director Forrest Lehman to say, as quoted by AP, "Whatever they thought this would accomplish in terms of changing voter behavior, it didn't change a thing," he said.

That — voter behavior — is a crucial consideration. For mail-in voting to be successful, it must be secure. That means we have to know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that people casting mail-in ballots are who they claim to be.

Toward that end, it's reasonable to require that the voter signs and dates the outer envelope.

And there's only so much the state can do on its end to ensure that people comply with those reasonable requirements.

So to repeat, when all else fails, read the instructions; and follow them.