Pennsylvania officials fear election “nightmare” in November with mail-in votes still not tallied after a week

In Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, a longtime Democratic stronghold overtaken by Donald Trump in 2016, officials were still counting mail-in ballots two days after the state’s June 2 primary election.

“I have this nightmare of CNN, Fox, CBS and everyone else waiting for these things to come in on election night, and we don’t have them,” said David Pedri, the county manager. 

The delay, Pedri said, was simply that the process of counting mail-in ballots is tedious and there’s little that can speed it up.

“No matter how many people we send in to count ballots, we still have to open an envelope, open another one, check it and smooth it down before we can scan it,” he said. 

Luzerne’s experience was replicated across the state. This was the first time all Pennsylvanians were allowed to vote by mail, and a surge of mail-in ballots driven by the coronavirus pandemic left some counties counting ballots days after the election. It’s a challenge that local election officials say could continue into the November general election and delay the results of the presidential race if the state doesn’t let them start processing ballots earlier. 

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s biggest city was still counting ballots it had received by primary day a week earlier. At the beginning of the day, Philadelphia elections officials hadn’t counted nearly 150,000 mail-in ballots from the previous week, over three times President Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016. 

The Pennsylvania legislature voted in the fall to allow no-excuse mail-in voting in elections. In March, as the pandemic began to shut down the state, the legislature delayed the primary by a month and allowed counties to consolidate polling places. Over 1.8 million residents applied to vote absentee or by mail, 17 times as many as in 2016. Counties were not permitted to begin opening mail-in ballot envelopes until primary day. 

“Act 77 and Act 12 totally changed the way PA elections are run,” Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio said. “News organizations and the public will need to adjust their expectations on when results will be announced.”

The mail-in rush created a logistical nightmare for counties that were still receiving applications  on the last day they could, leaving only a week for the ballots to be mailed to residents, sent back and received by the counties. Governor Tom Wolf, citing protests over the death of George Floyd and the challenges presented by conducting an election during a pandemic, extended the date that six of the state’s most populous counties, including Philadelphia, could receive mail-in ballots postmarked by primary day. At the local level, a Common Pleas Court gave Bucks County a similar extension.

A week after the primary, The Associated Press had still not yet called a 5-way race for auditor general. In Philadelphia, commissioners had paused counting the prior Thursday, directing their staff to spend the following days going through poll books to make sure no one had voted both by mail and in person. But even counties that had not been granted extensions to receive late ballots were still counting days after primary day. 

In Northeastern Pennsylvania, another traditionally Democratic county that went to Donald Trump in 2016, officials were wrapping up mail-in ballot counting a week after the election. Erie County Elections Supervisor Tonia Fernandez said the county had about a dozen people counting ballots. Two people do the job in a typical year. But the larger staff was still unable to offset the time it takes to open the mail-in envelopes and check them. Fernandez said she was considering the primary a “learning election” and hoped the state legislature would allow counties to begin opening mail-in ballots ahead of time. 

“If we were allowed to start pre-canvassing even a week earlier, we might be able to have the results by election night,” Fernandez said. “But that I’m thinking of a week with the number that we have [in the primary]. If we doubled the amount that we’ve sent out and received, then we might need two weeks even.”

In a statement, Pennsylvania Department of State spokesperson Wanda Murren said the Wolf administration supports allowing counties to begin earlier. 

“The department and administration have always supported the ability of the counties to start pre-canvassing ballots in the weeks leading up to Election Day, and we very much hope to work with the legislature to enable this legislative improvement before November,” she said. 

But in the thinly stretched Philadelphia elections offices, opening mail-in ballots early wouldn’t be an option without increased funding for staffing, says City Commissioner Lisa Deeley. 

“We don’t have the staff to do that,” Deeley said. “These are people that are answering the phones, they’re on the call lines, they’re delivering supplies, they’re handling issues, fixing machines. They’re handling all that.”

The delays are complicated by the fact that votes counted after primary day in recent Pennsylvania elections have skewed Democratic in what Ohio State University Law School Professor Edward Foley has dubbed the “blue shift.” In the June 2 Pennsylvania primary, more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans applied to vote by mail.

“If it’s a landslide, we’re going to know that on November 3, but if it’s close, I think we’re likely to see this phenomenon where what’s counted on November 3 is red, and there’s considerable uncertainty about what’s left to be counted with the likelihood that what’s left to be counted is blue,” Foley said. “I think there is a significant chance that November 4 to 10 looks nothing like what we’ve ever been used to.” 

Political strategists on both sides of the aisle in Pennsylvania worry that delays in general election results and a late “blue shift” could cast doubt on the electoral process. President Trump himself has questioned delayed election results, tweeting during a Florida recount in the 2018 midterms that some ballots had shown up out of thin air, many were missing or forged and that officials “must go with election night.” 

“Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal. But these will not be normal circumstances and consequently, it’ll be a huge deal,” said T.J. Rooney, the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a political consultant in Bethlehem. “He’s going to dispute it on election night.” 

Philadelphia has over 800,000 registered voters, more than any other county in the state, but nearly six of every seven registered voters there is a Democrat, meaning late mail-in results could give Joe Biden a late boost in November. 

“You very well could have the smaller counties with the numbers in and Trump winning, and then have mail in ballots coming in [large suburban counties],” said Alan Novak, the former chairman of the state Republican Party and a political consultant based in Harrisburg. “But believe me if it’s Philadelphia, and mail ballots change the election, it’ll go crazy. There’ll be conspiracy theories everywhere.”

Pennsylvania is one of several crucial swing states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, that have faced an influx of mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic that could be magnified in November. 

“If we don’t take steps in the immediate future,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, “we’re going to see across the country delays that take much longer than what we’ve seen so far because the turnout in the general election is at least twice what you see in these primaries.” 

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