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From the archives 2020

These Pa. counties won’t start counting mail ballots until Wednesday, possibly skewing early results

by Marie Albiges for Spotlight PA |

When ballots are counted, and how results are reported, matter this year perhaps more than ever.
Margo Reed / Philadelphia Inquirer

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Officials in Pennsylvania agree it’s going to take a while to count all of the ballots cast in this election, and that means we won’t know the final results on Election Day.

Despite mounting pressure from the state’s top election official, a handful of counties maintain they will not begin counting mail ballots on Election Day, with officials there saying they don’t have enough personnel to do it while also running an in-person election.

Election workers can’t legally start pre-canvassing mail ballots — opening the envelopes, extracting the ballots, and placing them in a tabulation scanner — until 7 a.m. on Nov. 3. But nothing requires them to begin counting them that day, either.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar said Friday she would be “having a conversation” with those counties, but ultimately they will have the final call.

“The outcome of Tuesday’s election could well depend on Pennsylvania,” Boockvar said. “It is vitally important that the more than 3 million ballots cast by mail here be counted as soon as possible. The country will be looking to Pennsylvania for accurate and timely results.”

When ballots are counted, and how results are reported, matter this year perhaps more than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has caused no-excuse mail balloting to skyrocket just one year after it was enacted by the state legislature, with 2.4 million mail ballots received as of Monday.

That means elections officials will need to count in-person votes, mail votes, and provisional votes (which are required when a voter’s eligibility is in question). Depending on when those votes are counted, and how they are reported, early results could be misleading.

Far more Democrats (1.6 million) have so far voted by mail than Republicans (555,805). That means in-person voting could skew more toward Republicans. So if only in-person results are reported on Election Day, it could look like a big win for President Donald Trump. But as mail ballots are counted and the full picture of votes becomes clearer, his lead could narrow — or disappear.

The simplest advice: Don’t jump to conclusions, and wait for all of the votes to be counted.

Trump, whose reelection campaign almost entirely hinges on winning Pennsylvania, has been sowing doubt in Pennsylvania’s process by claiming he will win on Election Day, but that the election will then be stolen from him. Trump has repeatedly attacked mail voting and contended — with no evidence — that it will result in massive fraud.

“We should know the result of the election on Nov. 3. The evening of Nov. 3,” Trump said at a rally Sunday in Iowa. “That’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it should be.”

But election results are never known on election night. States have days, sometimes weeks to certify the results, and in Pennsylvania, county staff will be opening millions of mail ballots — some by hand, some with machines — while also running an in-person election during a pandemic.

Dorene Mandity, the director of elections in Beaver County, said staff will be waiting until Wednesday to begin counting mail ballots. Nearly 82% of the county’s 34,699 requested ballots were returned to the county as of Monday.

“It’s better procedure for us,” Mandity said, noting the county elections office is a small room. “I can’t do everything simultaneously.” Mandity added that the county did not begin counting mail ballots until the day after the June primary.

Holly Brandon, the elections director in Montour County, also cited a small space and limited staff as reasons for waiting until Wednesday to begin counting the 3,145 mail ballots received so far. She said the state offered money to help — Boockvar said at a press conference Friday that financial assistance was still available through federal COVID-19-related funds and through private foundation grants — but Brandon said it was too late for that.

“They offered to throw some money at us, but that’s not a good fix,” she said, adding the problem was more about training staff members.

“We’re doing the best with the hand we’ve been dealt,” she added, saying the state legislature — who refused to allow pre-canvassing ahead of Election Day — “created this monster.”

The counties of Cumberland, Franklin, Greene, and Juniata also won’t begin reporting mail ballot results until Wednesday, although some election officials among that group said they would start processing them on Tuesday.

Thad Hall, the elections director in Mercer County, said he’s focused on making sure Election Day goes smoothly for voters before he has to worry about processing mail ballots, which his staff will begin on Wednesday.

“I have to be in a position to spend my day addressing the needs of my Election Day voters and then once we are done with that, then we’ll turn to addressing the mail-in ballots,” he said.

He said he’s had a few poll workers drop out because of sickness — including some experiencing COVID-19 symptoms — and is worried about the long lines that will likely be forming when people surrender their mail ballots in order to vote in person, which takes longer.

Hall thinks he’ll be done counting the mail ballots — as of Monday, 73% of the 19,079 ballots the county mailed out had been returned — by Friday.

“People act like counting is easy,” Hall said.

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