This is the first time in a general election that Pennsylvanians were able to cast ballots by mail without an excuse. During the June primary, fears of contracting COVID-19 at the polls drove mail voting numbers far higher than expected, causing some counties to take as long as two weeks to count their ballots — and the final count changed the outcome in 10 other races on the ballot.
Mail ballots take longer to count than those cast in person. The process involves checking signatures, opening two envelopes and scanning ballots, whereas votes at the polls are simply digitally recorded by voting machines and backed up on paper.
Local officials asked the state legislature to allow them to begin some processing ahead of Election Day, which would have eased pressure considerably. The legislature had already voted to expand mail-in voting in late 2019, well before COVID-19 interceded. Though there was bipartisan support for early pre-canvassing, state GOP legislative leaders couldn’t reach an agreement with Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat.
Now, at least seven counties say they won’t even begin opening mail ballots until November 4, so the in-person votes on Election Day, which are expected to be heavily Republican, will be counted before the mail ballots, which are likely to favor Biden.
Because the mail ballots will be processed after the in-person voting on November 4, early unofficial results are likely to suggest that Mr. Trump is winning as the polls close, while Biden may have to wait to close the gap until mail ballots are counted.
Another factor is the state Supreme Court’s decision to extend the deadline for counties to accept ballots returned by mail to three days after Election Day, so long as they don’t show a postmark after November 3. That ruling came after the Postal Service warned the state’s top elections official that it couldn’t deliver and return ballots within the timelines set for the state’s election. In the primary, over 100,000 mail ballots arrived at county offices after the election.
The U.S. Supreme Court may still overrule the state supreme court, though it denied a motion from the Pennsylvania GOP to halt the state court decision and expedite its appeal.
“I reluctantly conclude that there is simply not enough time at this late date to decide the question before the election,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. “That does not mean, however, that the state court decision must escape our review.”
Counties are to segregate late ballots in case the Supreme Court rules in favor of Republicans and orders those late ballots not to be counted.
Pennsylvania also faces another potential problem withThe state requires voters to be given two envelopes with a mail ballot, the outer postmarked one and an inner secrecy envelope meant to protect the ballot from tampering.
Some voters overlooked the secrecy envelope during the primary, and most counties counted their votes anyway. State law doesn’t explicitly say ballots lacking a secrecy envelope must be discarded, and counties to were advised to count naked ballots in the primary. But the state supreme court ruled in September “the only way to be certain that no fraud has taken place is to reject all naked ballots,” a move that could hurt Democrats disproportionately because they were expected to vote by mail at a higher rate than Republicans.