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Second update, Nov. 9: John Fetterman wins U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, AP projects
Update, Nov. 9: Democrat Josh Shapiro elected governor of Pennsylvania, defeating Republican Doug Mastriano
HARRISBURG — The polls are closed in Pennsylvania after an Election Day that saw high turnout in some parts of the state, few significant issues for in-person voters, and rampant misinformation about ballot counting in Philadelphia.
But for a host of reasons, you might not know all the winners before you go to bed.
Marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate, as well as closely watched contests for the U.S. House and General Assembly, were on the ballot.
Pennsylvania’s next governor — either Democrat Josh Shapiro or Republican Doug Mastriano — will have a key role in crafting public policy over the next four years, including overseeing how the commonwealth runs the 2024 presidential election.
Control of the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, could be decided by Pennsylvania’s voters as they pick between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz.
The makeup of the Pennsylvania General Assembly is also expected to shift significantly after the redistricting process created brand new lines that give Democrats a better chance at a majority in the lower chamber.
State officials stressed that unofficial election results would likely not be completed tonight in many key races.
That’s been the case since 2020, the year after Pennsylvania lawmakers voted to institute no-excuse mail voting but failed to give county officials time before Election Day to process those ballots. In recent election cycles, it has sometimes taken days to count enough ballots for news agencies to project a winner, and weeks to officially certify election results.
Pennsylvania lawmakers did make one significant change in the lead-up to Nov. 8. In exchange for new election funding, all but four of the state’s 67 counties — rural Bradford, Crawford, Montour, and Susquehanna — agreed to count mail ballots without stopping until done.
Former President Donald Trump took advantage of the slow count in 2020 to spread disinformation about mail voting, arguing falsely the election was stolen from him as counties continued processing ballots.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Mastriano helped spread Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud. More recently, he’s repeated false claims about drop boxes and promoted a faulty analysis of mail ballot requests.
Misinformation about Pennsylvania’s election could be widely seen on social media Tuesday, especially in regard to Philadelphia’s vote count. A false claim that a judge in Pennsylvania ordered local officials to count mail ballots received six days after Election Day went viral based on a case involving the city, despite being completely untrue.
On the ground, the most significant issue appeared to be a paper shortage at some Luzerne County precincts that led a judge to extend the closing time of polls there to 10 p.m.
In-person versus mail voting
More than 1.4 million people requested to vote by either absentee or mail ballot this election, a lower number than in 2020. As of Monday, about 1.16 million ballots had been returned.
Major counties in the state reported few issues processing mail ballots, including Lancaster, where a printer issue during the May primary meant that poll workers had to remark thousands of ballots by hand.
Voters across the state who voted in person, rather than by mail, provided many different reasons for their approach.
Saliyma Chapman, a 29-year-old housing counselor who lives in Harrisburg, said she thought about casting a mail ballot this year, but “didn’t want it to get lost in the mail.”
Bill Nailor of Cumberland County said he never considered voting by mail, because he doesn’t trust the system. Plus, he said, he’s always voted in person: “I’m 74 years old, that’s what you do.”
Stacey Klokocs of Allentown said she cast her ballot in person this year because she feels she has more control. She was worried her ballot might get lost in the mail and wasn’t sure a ballot would come in time.
“For me, it’s all about being involved,” said Klokocs. “My mail only comes once a week, and I was worried that my vote wasn’t going to come in in time.”
A recent state Supreme Court decision that undated and incorrectly dated mail ballots should not be counted also influenced some voters’ decisions.
Under state law, a person who casts a mail ballot must sign and date a declaration on the outer envelope. Undated ballots have a missing date, but are otherwise turned in on time to county election offices.
Incorrectly dated mail ballots were defined by the high court as those with handwritten dates that fall before Sept. 19, 2022, or after Nov. 8, 2022. For absentee ballots, the dates are Aug. 30, 2022, or after Nov. 8, 2022.
“Yesterday, I read that 1,000 people in Allegheny County — their vote didn’t count, so they had to run down there and fix it because the dates were wrong,” Stephanie Clemm of Pittsburgh said. “I just don’t trust it.”
Tim Benyo, Lehigh County’s election director, said local officials have been preparing for months and anticipated changes at the eleventh hour.
“For us, it’s just more work to be last-minute and to have a whole new process added,” said Benyo. “We prepare for months and to have a change at the last minute, it invites errors.”
Two different groups have filed suit in federal court challenging the state Supreme Court ruling. One suit came Monday from U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman’s campaign, as well as the Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees and individual voters. Another was filed last week by Pennsylvania’s NAACP, League of Women Voters, and other groups.
Viral misinformation, fraud concerns
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s largest and most heavily Democratic county, results will take longer to be tabulated than originally expected. That’s in large part because of a lawsuit from a conservative group, RITE, that sought to force city officials to reinstate a lengthier process to double-check for voters casting ballots both by mail and in person.
City commissioners agreed Tuesday morning to concede to the lawsuit’s demands, but Seth Bluestein, the only Republican who serves on the panel, indicated that the resulting slower count would lead to conspiracy theories.
“When there are conversations that occur later this evening about whether or not Philadelphia has counted all of their ballots,” he said, voters should know that “the reason that some of the ballots will not be counted is that Republican attorneys targeted Philadelphia, and only Philadelphia, and tried to force us to do a procedure that no other county does.”
Bluestein’s prediction played out on social media Tuesday even before the polls closed, as users falsely claimed that change in procedure meant the fix was in for Democrats.
Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Lehigh Chapman was active on Election Day responding to misleading allegations of impropriety. On Tuesday morning, she publicly sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s two highest-ranking state Senate Republicans, responding to a previous missive in which they’d expressed “concerns” about the election.
Those expressed concerns included “conflicting reports regarding mail-in ballots of unverified voters.” This is a misleading theory raised by a number of elected Republicans that is based on a misreading of the way the state verifies mail voters’ identities.
Chapman wrote that she, too, wants elections to be “fair, secure, and accurate,” and that most of the senators’ concerns are already addressed in Department of State guidance to counties. On the topic of “unverified voters,” she told the senators that the theory is “parroted from internet election deniers.”
Trump has already capitalized on the real legal uncertainty over nuanced issues of Pennsylvania’s vague election law to sow doubt.
At a rally in Westmoreland County on Saturday, the former president incorrectly said that the state Supreme Court’s recent decision on undated ballots — which was deadlocked, not unanimous as he erroneously said — was proof that the justices agreed with his false narrative.
He also resurrected his false claim that the legal count of mail ballots cast for Joe Biden amounted to Democrats rigging the 2020 election against him, and he stoked fears that the same fate would befall the GOP’s candidates this year.
“I’m so worried about Oz and Doug Mastriano,” Trump said. “We can’t let this happen.”
This rhetoric appears to have trickled down to supporters like Barbara Maher, a 70-year-old Lancaster County resident who held a Mastriano sign outside of a Shapiro rally Friday.
“If it’s a fair election, Mastriano and Oz will win,” Maher told Spotlight PA.
Charles Watts, a 77-year-old Republican from outside of Harrisburg, told a reporter as he left his polling place Tuesday: “Someone is going to find a way to cheat.”
Spotlight PA’s Kate Huanpu and Angela Couloumbis contributed reporting, as did Votebeat’s Carter Walker and News Lab @ Penn State’s Abigail Chachoute, Alicia Chiang, Makenzie Christman, Lilly Riddle, Valeria Quinones Morales, and Alexis Yoder.
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