Why Pa. didn’t have results on Election Day

A record number of mail-in ballots meant Pennsylvania didn't know its final results on Election Day. And those results could make or break the election.

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John Hansberry operates an extractor at Philadelphia's ballot counting center

John Hansberry operates an extractor at Philadelphia's ballot counting center at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The machine removes sorted mail-in ballots from their double envelopes. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Over the weekend, President Trump said he wanted to see the election results by the end of Election Day and suggested that Democrats may try to steal the election if the votes weren’t counted by then.

But with record numbers of mail-in ballots this year  — more than 3 million voters requested them —  and the fact that Pennsylvania is among a handful of states that won’t be able to start counting votes until Election Day, it’s highly unlikely the commonwealth will be able to process its ballots in one day. 

Our guest, WHYY reporter Aaron Moselle, has been digging into ballot-counting operations in Philadelphia and the suburbs and explains why results will take longer in a battleground state that could decide this election. 

Hear the whole story on The Why

Interview Highlights

Aaron Moselle on why the voting process is different this year

There are a couple of big reasons for that. The first is that we’re still very much in the middle of this pandemic. And so there’s still some reticence on the part of voters to go vote in person. They had the option this year of sending in a mail ballot instead, and more than 3 million voters took it, requesting a mail ballot. That compares to the last election when we had fewer than 300,000 — a big change.

On the legal challenges

So there’s been some back and forth over when voters in Pennsylvania actually need to get their ballots into the hands of county election boards. There was a state Supreme Court decision in September that said that they had between 8 p.m. on Election Day and 5:00 p.m. on November 6th, to count ballots as long as the county boards had received the mail ballot in that window.  That ruling got some pushback from Republicans in Pennsylvania who said that violated federal law and they asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down that three-day extension. Those challenges were ultimately unsuccessful, which prompted the state Republican Party to try again with the U.S. Supreme Court.

That petition was rejected, but only because it was filed so close to the election. 

Why it matters that mail-in ballots be counted quickly

The mail ballots, the results for them, are going to come in a more staggered fashion than the results at polling places. And so, as we said earlier, the state has more than 3 million voters who have requested a mail-in ballot. And when you break it down by party, way more of those votes are coming from Democrats — close to 2 million compared to roughly 800,000 from Republicans. That means that, as things get reported out, we’re likely to see more votes reported from the Republican side of things first before we see kind of the full complement of votes from Democrats because more Republicans will be voting in person. And so all of this is to say that when everything is said and done, Pennsylvania could experience a pretty profound shift in its results in the days after the election. So it could look like the state is going for Trump initially because you’re having all of these in-person Republican votes coming in first. And then you could see what analysts are calling a blue shift when you have more of these Democratic mail-in ballots that are hitting their results page of these counties and ultimately [added to] the overall count for Pennsylvania.

The concern with that blue shift is that President Trump could try to take advantage of it.  Once it seems like he’s winning, he [could] try to declare a victory and then try to dispute any of the results that come in afterwards. Remember Pennsylvania is a hugely important swing state that could really make or break this election really both for him or for his rival, Joe Biden. Just this weekend, [Trump] said that he’d like to see the results all today, even though we know that isn’t possible because of everything that we’ve discussed.

And PA Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar was asked about this yesterday. [She said,] “That would be so unsubstantiated in every way shape or form, were somebody to declare victory when a fraction of the ballots are counted.” She didn’t specifically say Trump’s name, but she did say it would be wrong to declare victory before all the count was done: “I urge everybody to ignore completely unsubstantiated claims that have no basis in reality.”



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