‘An extraordinary election’: Nearly 750K votes later, Philly’s ballot counting is officially over

The unofficial total, which eclipsed the final tally in 2016, was effectively an even split between mail ballots and votes cast at the polls. 

Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt wears a mask while sitting at a table

Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s a wrap in Philadelphia.

More than two weeks after polls closed on Election Day, the city has finished counting its cache of general election ballots — all 749,317 of them.

The unofficial total, which eclipsed the final tally in 2016, was effectively an even split between mail ballots and votes cast at the polls.

Voter turnout was roughly 66% — the highest it’s been in 25 years.

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“This has been an extraordinary election — unlike any that I have ever witnessed and I’ve been involved in Philadelphia elections since I was 7-years-old,” said City Commissioner Lisa Deeley during a Tuesday night meeting.

City Commissioner Lisa Deeley presided over the formal announcement of election results in Philadelphia on Nov. 18, 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Thanks to Republican legislation passed in 2019, Pennsylvania voters could for the first time request a mail ballot without providing an excuse. With an ongoing pandemic, more than three million voters took advantage of the opportunity.

In Philadelphia, the city spent $5 million on dozens of specialized election machines to help count more than 370,000 mail ballots, including envelope extractors, ballot scanners and a high-speed sorter.

Inside a cavernous hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a combination of city workers and temporary employees began counting at 7 a.m. on Election Day — the earliest canvassing can start under state law.

They essentially didn’t stop, aside from a “brief” pause in the action on the third day of counting due to litigation filed by the Trump campaign, which unsuccessfully challenged how close campaign and candidate observers could stand from the counting process.

Even after the presidential race was called for Joe Biden, in no small part because of the thousands of Democratic votes that trickled out of Philadelphia, the counting continued.

Even as the City Commissioners Office received death threats, the counting continued.

In the end, there were 374,373 mail ballots and 359,952 ballots cast at the polls.

The Philadelphia County Board of Elections received the overwhelming majority of the city’s ballots by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Thanks to a state Supreme Court decision, county election boards were required to count ballots received between 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 and 5 p.m. on Nov .6 — even if they weren’t clearly postmarked by the end of Election Day.

Less than 1,000 ballots were received during that three-day window.

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The City Commissioners will now certify Philly’s vote count, then send the city’s results to the Department of State, which oversees elections statewide.

All 67 counties must submit their vote count to the state by Nov. 23.

“We’re all happy for it to be over,” said City Commissioner Al Schmidt, the body’s lone Republican. “I think every one of us is looking forward to getting a little sleep and putting this election behind us.”

More than 6.9 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail or in-person — an apparent record-high turnout, according to the Department of State. Turnout during the general election exceeded the totals in every presidential election since at least 1960.

By comparison, 6.1 million Pennsylvanians voted in 2016.

The election also apparently broke a record for highest percentage of participation by Pennsylvania’s voting-age population — 70.9%.

The previous record was 70.3%, set in 1960.

“I am thrilled with the voter engagement and record turnout in this year’s election, which truly reflects the vitality of our democracy,” said Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar in a Tuesday afternoon press release.

The tallies come as the Trump campaign continues to challenge the results of the election in Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed a lower court ruling that permitted observers inside the Convention Center to stand within six feet of tables where workers were counting ballots — to search for irregularities.

Previously, monitors were allowed to stand in a fenced off area approximately 15 to 18 feet from the counting operation, according to the opinion.

“In sum, we conclude the Board did not act contrary to law in fashioning its regulations governing the positioning of candidate representatives during the pre-canvassing and canvassing process, as the Election Code does not specify minimum distance parameters for the location of such representatives,” Justice Barbara Todd wrote for the majority.

“Critically, we find the Board’s regulations as applied herein were reasonable.”

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is asking a federal judge in Williamsport to bar the state from certifying the vote, in part because lawyers claim observers had limited access to the vote-counting process in places such as Philadelphia, Montgomery and Allegheny Counties.

In Philadelphia, the suit maintains, “workers repeatedly removed ballots, sometimes over 100 feet away, to do something with them, which the Trump Campaign’s watchers were unable to observe.”

Oral arguments began Tuesday. A decision from U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann is not expected before Friday.

Biden has a roughly 73,000 vote lead over Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press.

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