A September 17 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on a lawsuit from President Donald Trump’s campaign to restrict mail-in voting will likely lead to thousands of so-called “naked ballots” being thrown out in the presidential election, even though they were counted for the June primary election. Pennsylvania television news coverage of these ballots in the ruling’s aftermath mostly ignored the Trump campaign’s involvement or avoided mentioning that these votes were countable just months earlier, and more than 40% of news segments on this topic failed to explain to viewers how to properly submit a mail-in ballot.
As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “ordered officials to throw out ‘naked ballots’ - mail ballots that arrive without inner ‘secrecy envelopes.’” The enveloped are used to keep the vote anonymous, but the Inquirer pointed out that “most counties counted [naked ballots] in the June primary without tracking how many there were.” Philadelphia's top election official warned that the ruling “is going to cause electoral chaos” and will likely lead to tens of thousands of votes being tossed out, uncounted.
If that’s the case, it would be especially helpful if TV news coverage in the state explained that these so-called “naked ballots” were accepted in most locations during the June primary, but no longer are. Sadly, the vast majority of local TV reporting on the issue following the September 17 court ruling failed to mention that these ballots were once acceptable, which may lead to confusion among voters.
A transcript search of the Kinetiq video database for news coverage of “naked ballots” by the major corporate broadcast affiliates in television markets across the state since the ruling found a total of 48 local news reports on the issue from September 17-23. Philadelphia had the most reports, at 17, followed by Pittsburgh, at 11. The Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York market was next with 8 reports, then Erie with 5, Elmira (Corning) with 4, and Wilkes Barre-Scranton-Hazleton with 3 reports.
A majority of the local news reporting -- 28 reports, or 58% -- educated the viewers on the proper way to include the so-called “secrecy envelope” with their mail-in ballot, either letting a guest or a reporter explain that the filled ballot must first be placed in the “secrecy envelope,” which is then placed in the return envelope.
But this explanation of how to properly vote by mail didn't air across all stations or even in all markets in the state. In the Harrisburg market, NBC affiliate WGAL, CBS affiliate WHP, and Fox affiliate WPMT all failed to demonstrate how to properly send a mail-in ballot with the “secrecy envelope.” In the Wilkes Barre market, NBC affiliate WBRE and CBS affiliate WYOU also failed to educate their viewers about this. In the Elmira market, NBC affiliate WETM failed its viewers on this while ABC affiliate WENY included the information. In Pittsburgh, Fox affiliate WPGH and NBC affiliate WPXI did not include the information while CBS affiliate KDKA and ABC affiliate WTAE did. And in Philadelphia, ABC affiliate WPVI failed to educate its viewers on how to properly send a mail-in ballot in its sole report on this issue while the three other stations -- CBS affiliate KYW, NBC affiliate WCAU, and Fox affiliate WTXF -- included that crucial information.
And only two of these reports -- a paltry 4% -- mentioned that these “naked ballots” were counted during the June primary election. Both mentions came from Pittsburgh ABC affiliate WTAE.
Thirty-three of the local news reports, or 69%, mentioned that thousands of ballots are at risk of being thrown out and not counted during the presidential election because of this ruling.
Yet only four of these reports, or 8%, explained that a lawsuit from the Trump campaign began the court fight that led to this ruling which could deprive thousands of Pennsylvania residents of their vote. Each of these four mentions came from Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate WCAU, with every other station that covered this issue leaving their viewers in the dark about the Trump campaign’s involvement.
Pennsylvania’s residents deserve news coverage that gives them the full context of issues that affect them as drastically as a court ruling which may toss out their vote. Unfortunately, many of them are being failed by their local TV news.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database in all television markets that serve the Pennsylvania area for the broadcast affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. for any of the terms “naked ballot” or “ballot” in close proximity of the words “privacy” or “secrecy” between September 17 and September 23, 2020.
We counted as segments instances when the so-called “naked ballots” were the stated topic of discussion or when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed these ballots with one another. We did not include teasers for upcoming segments about these ballots or passing mentions of them in segments about other topics. We also excluded nationally syndicated programs.
We reviewed segments for whether they mentioned the Trump campaign's lawsuit that led to the ruling, educated viewers on how to include both envelopes with their mail-in ballots, mentioned that thousands of ballots could be thrown out as a result of the ruling, or mentioned that Pennsylvania election officials counted such “naked ballots” during the June primary election.