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From the archives 2020

When do we find out who won the 2020 election?

by Spotlight PA Staff |

About 100 York County employees open and prepare mail ballots for counting after 8 p.m. Tuesday.
ED MAHON / Spotlight PA

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It’s the question on the minds of everyone today as voters head to the polls.

First, 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 running an in-person election during a pandemic.

Instead, what we normally get are projected winners by television networks and news organizations, based on a number of factors, including turnout, exit polls, actual vote counts, and more. But this year will make projecting winners in some states much harder.


The coronavirus pandemic has prompted an unprecedented flood of mail ballots, including in key swing states such as Pennsylvania. As of Monday, more than 2.4 million mail ballots had been returned in the commonwealth. But counties could not begin processing them until today.

That processing includes opening the envelopes, taking out the ballot, flattening it, and putting it in a pile. Then comes the actual counting.

Several Pennsylvania counties won’t even begin processing mail ballots today, much less counting them. And that could skew early returns you see this evening. Other swing states, such as Wisconsin, also do not permit pre-canvassing mail ballots.

But do these delays mean something nefarious is going on?

No, it will simply take longer than normal to tally all the different kinds of votes — in-person, mail, and provisional (cast when a voter’s eligibility is in question). The head of elections in Pennsylvania, Kathy Boockvar, and county officials are confident the overwhelming majority of votes will be counted by Friday.

The state has also launched a new dashboard for you to track the counting over the next few days, and see how many of the different types of ballots are still outstanding. If you don’t want all of that detail, you can use their more simplified results page.

So could we still have a projected winner tonight?

Sure, it’s possible. A lot of states will be able to report results tonight much like they do normally, and if President Donald Trump or Vice President Joe Biden jump out to a commanding lead or are projected to win certain swing states, we could have a pretty good idea of the winner.

But if the race isn’t clear tonight, or if it hinges on Pennsylvania, expect to wait several more days. And don’t be surprised if you see a lot of legal wrangling over votes here.


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