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Voting for the First Time During a Pandemic

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

Mail-in Ballots, Secrecy Envelopes, and Excitement

By Zoe Millstein

I voted in my first election this year.

I was six years old when I went to “vote” with my mom for the first time. We approached the front of the line at Greenfield Elementary in Center City. As one poll worker skimmed for my mom’s name in a file of registered voters, the other bombarded me with questions: How old are you? How’s school? It’s so nice to see you coming to vote with your mom! After I answered, we were led to a voting station. Inside the booth, my mom directed my finger toward the circles worn down from years’ worth of votes. I stood on tip-toes to press the buttons and light up the little circles with yellow. After plugging in all the names, with my mom’s permission I clicked “SUBMIT." The poll worker asked me one last question as I walked away: Do you want a sticker?

Of course I wanted a sticker. I peeled it off of the sheet, and stuck it to my chest: I VOTED TODAY. The voting stickers never got less exciting. I got one for going to every election with my mom until I was sixteen.

But this year was different.

In May, my twin sister Sophie and I registered to vote in the Pennsylvania primary, which had been rescheduled from April to June because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new date fell just after we turned 18, so while the primary was not as historic as the upcoming presidential election, I was happy to be voting in one more election than I had originally anticipated. We took our time filling out each tedious question and triple-checking every answer with each other, even our address, to ensure all our information was correct. We reached the last question after 20 minutes: “Check the box if you would like to apply for a mail-in ballot for the upcoming primary election.”

The decision to apply for a mail-in ballot did not take much deliberation. Mail-in voting became the norm during the primary election due to the pandemic, which at that point had just recently hit the United States. Mail ballots were a safe and logical way to vote. According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, over 400,000 Pennsylvanians opted for mail-in ballots in the primary. Sophie and I both checked the box and submitted our registrations, becoming a part of this statistic.

However, opting for a mail-in ballot was not as easy for all first-time voters. The process of filling out a mail-in ballot is complicated, even for experienced voters and even more so for youth who’d never voted before—in-person or absentee.

On May 21st, the day before Sophie’s and my 18th birthday, the ballots arrived at our house. The crisp white envelopes read “Official Election Ballot.” They were marked with our names and address. This made us official registered voters. I ripped open the seam of the envelope to reveal a few pieces of paper. First, the ballot itself. I took it out and flattened the trifold sheet onto the table. It was much larger than I expected, double sided, and contained a lot of fine print. Feeling confused by all the small details, I grabbed the envelope again to continue pulling out the voting materials. Next came a much smaller sheet made of a sort of index-card material: the mail-in ballot voting directions. I studied it then placed it on top of the ballot itself. Next, I pulled out a sheet with two questions labeled “Plain English” which simplified the ballot questions. I skimmed the page and reached for the final: the secrecy envelope, a plain, white envelope again stamped “Official Election Ballot.” At that point, I did not know that secrecy envelopes would become one of the most controversial election topics. The four documents in front of me were overwhelming. After being so accustomed to voting in-person with my mom, voting this year presented another challenge. Yet, I expected nothing less from such an unpredictable year.

I reviewed the directions, then repositioned the papers on the table so the ballot was in front of me. I grabbed my pen and marked the long sheet of paper as my sister filled out her ballot next to me. My mom sat across from us to answer any of our questions. Going to vote with my mom had become a tradition. Similar to past years, I was still voting with her. And not-so-similarly, I was voting this time.

When I finished marking my ballot, I took great care to place it inside of the secrecy envelope and then into the larger envelope to secure my vote.

Pennsylvania mandated that all absentee and mail-in ballots must be secured in a “secrecy sleeve,” or secrecy envelope, inside of the outer envelope. The purpose of this sleeve is to protect the voter’s identity, which is not written on the sleeve or ballot itself. This way, when the mail ballots are counted, the voter’s identity remains anonymous.

In the primary election, secrecy envelopes were distributed in Philadelphia but not required for a vote to be counted. Had I forgotten to use the secrecy envelope, my vote would have remained valid. Phew.

But other counties in Pennsylvania did require secrecy envelopes, putting voters at risk of disenfranchisement. Mercer and Lawrence Counties found that 5% of ballots that were mailed out did not include a secrecy envelope. Had all of Pennsylvania rejected “naked ballots,” 11,000 mail-in and absentee ballots would have been rejected. This soon became the case for the general election.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that all “naked ballots,” or ballots not enclosed in a secrecy envelope, would be rejected in the November presidential race. Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa M. Deeley predicted that this decision could throw away 100,000 votes in Pennsylvania.

I already felt baffled by all the components of the mail-in ballot. Disqualifying “naked ballots'' in the general election was almost guaranteed to result in discarding the votes of so many other first-time voters unfamiliar with the voting process.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision spurred efforts from nonprofit organizations, election officials, and political campaigns to inform new voters of the rules for mail-in ballot voting. Election officials opened seven new early voting sites across Philadelphia to make both in-person and mail ballot voting easier for all voters. At each of these seven sites, ballot drop-off boxes were available for voters to submit their mail-in votes. News sources and websites, such as VOTESPA, published extensive directions for voting by mail. Some elected officials even released an advertisement where they stood nakedonly covered by a mail-in ballotdiscouraging sending “naked ballots.”

This fall, I took part in these efforts with VoteThatJawn. I was a student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Writing and Politics class with Professor Lorene Cary, founder of VoteThatJawn. Due to my own confusion and how overwhelmed I felt during my first voting experience, I made an infographic for VoteThatJawn’s Instagram presenting the steps of absentee voting. This included information about how to apply for a mail-in ballot, how to fill out the ballot, where to drop it off, and the countless deadlines in this process.

The efforts of nonprofits and election officials were successful in increasing both voter registration and turnout in this unpredictable year. According to Philly Voice, Pennsylvania saw a 10% increase in voter turnout from the 2016 presidential election, with more than 2.5 million voters in the state submitting mail-in ballots for the general election.

Mail-in ballot voting (and all of its problems) defined both the primary and general elections. A task that used to be as simple as directing a six year old’s hand toward a button transformed into a long process of applying, sealing, and mailing in 2020.

Filling out my mail-in ballot felt surreal. I had long awaited the moment, being part of a process that I have been unofficially involved in for so many years. Despite a pandemic, missing my prom, graduating from high school over YouTube, taking AP exams and finals online, and missing out on an 18th birthday celebration, I succeeded in carrying on this tradition and fulfilling a growing-up goal.

Like many other young first-time voters, I did not get stopped from casting my vote by the pandemic. An analysis of the general election by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) concluded that turnout of voters between ages 18-19 grew 8% from the 2016 general election. Youth voters typically have a low turnout, but in the 2020 general election we saw the highest youth voter turnout in 100 years: 53% of eligible young people. This year proved that first-time voters are now ready for any election in the future.

A few days after my birthday, I gathered my envelope and some cash to buy a coffee and went on a walk with Sophie to mail our ballots. We were excited, both to vote and to buy our favorite iced beverages. We contemplated what caffeinated drinks we would buy from Starbucks as we walked the two blocks to the mailbox. We decided on our usual orders: an iced chai latte for me and an iced vanilla latte for her. I opened the handle of the faded blue USPS box, slipping our ballots inside, then slathered on hand sanitizer. It was a special moment as we walked another two blocks to pick up our celebratory coffees.

Zoe Millstein is a current freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. With passions for politics and cooking, she also writes recipes for Penn Appétit. Zoe cast her first vote in 2020!

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