Pennsylvania’s midterm election results may not be known on Election Night. Here are the facts

Close-up of election workers' hands handling ballots.

Election workers perform a recount of ballots from the recent Pennsylvania primary election at the Allegheny County Election Division warehouse on the Northside of Pittsburgh, June 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Ask us: As Election Day draws near, what questions do you have?

This story originally appeared on WITF

Pennsylvania’s Department of State is explaining why complete results from the midterm elections will probably not be ready on Election Night – and why that is no cause for concern.

The agency oversees elections, which are run by counties, and has for weeks been warning that the sheer scale and mechanics of the vote-tallying process may make for a days-long waiting game.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I’m trying to manage expectations about the vote count and what people can expect after Election Day,” Acting Secretary Leigh Chapman told a Press Club lunch in Harrisburg Monday. “Expecting results in one day is unrealistic and unfair.”

Groups that have been casting doubt on the state’s election system since the 2020 election have recently been focusing on statewide results. Toni Shuppe, a political activist who leads one such group, Audit the Vote PA, told followers in a video last week “something doesn’t sound quite right” about Chapman’s warnings.

Chapman tackled that concern head-on at Monday’s lunch in Harrisburg.

“Protracted counting doesn’t mean anything nefarious is happening,” she said. “It’s simply a reflection of the vast amount of work county election officials have to do to process and count mail-in and absentee ballots,” adding voters should turn to trusted sources of information at the county and state level if they have questions.

Election experts have outlined several things that might prevent race-defining results from dropping on Election Night:

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
  • Limits in Pennsylvania law on when counties can start processing mail-in ballots
  • The verification work of county canvassing boards
  • Differences in county election procedure

The Department of State has also released a graphic, below, laying out Pennsylvania’s vote counting procedure:

A graphic provided to the press outlining Pennsylvania’s vote counting process. (via Department of State/Commonwealth Media Services)

As of Monday, around 1.4 million people have requested mail-in ballots this election. The deadline to apply for one is Nov. 1.

Counties are warning it’s very unlikely that a voter will receive and return their ballot before Election Day if they request one now. Some election departments have even had trouble getting ballots out to those that asked for one earlier this fall.

So, even if only a fraction of mail-in voters who have received their ballot return it, it’ll take time to accurately process them.

Counties can’t start opening those ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Morning, when polls open. While some have already prepared for that reality with extra staff and by conducting dry runs of scanning equipment, not all counties have those kinds of resources.

That means, for instance, some election departments may tackle counting mail-in and in-person ballots differently than others.

“Some counties might report mail-in ballots first. Some counties might report in-person votes first. It’s really up to the county,” Chapman said.

Mail-in voters in all 67 Pennsylvania counties also have to answer to a group known as the canvassing board. That board convenes after every Election Day to verify each ballot is correctly filled out – and that the voter provided proper identification — before it’s counted. That process can take a while, especially when the board has to follow up with voters about their ID.

Earlier this year, lawmakers green-lit a grant program with requirements designed to make the ballot counting process more transparent. All but four counties applied for and received a share of $45 million in state funding – but they have to post their mail-in ballot counting progress online by midnight on Nov. 9, and must continually tally all ballots until the process is complete.

“That level of transparency should end up mitigating any concerns with counts,” Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), a supporter of the law that created the program, Act 88.

Counties are only required to share how far along they are in the counting process. Results themselves could still take a while, and will not be certified by the state until Nov. 28.

Your go-to election coverage

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal