More likely than not, we will not know the winner of the 2020 presidential election on Election Night, and likely not for weeks after that. This is because of the unprecedented amount of mail-in and absentee ballots that have been requested this election cycle due to voters concerned about going to a polling station during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These types of ballots take time to count and the rules and processes for these ballots vary by state and county.
This begs a question: When will we know the election results? This will depend mostly on when each swing state reports its results. Thus, let’s go through one of these key states: Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania has become a focal point for both presidential campaigns since the polling in the state shows that former Vice President Joe Biden, who is from Scranton originally, currently holds a sizable lead over Trump.
Trump won the state in 2016 by a small margin. Depending on how smoothly the counting of ballots goes, if there are any serious allegations, and how close the margin of victory is, this could open the door for challenging the integrity of the election in Pennsylvania.
With that being said, and for the sake of clarity, all ballots sent through the mail will be referred to as “postal ballots” unless specified, regardless of if they’re mail-in or absentee.
For an explanation about the difference between mail-in and absentee ballots, check out this piece here by Ben Wilson: The Difference Between Absentee and Mail-In Ballots.
Right off the bat, a major roadblock for Pennsylvania ballot-counters is that they legally cannot count any mail or absentee ballots until Election Day, specifically before 7 am that day.
There’s also the aspect of “pre-processing” ballots. This is anything that helps officials prepare the ballots they’ve already received for counting so that they don’t have to do it later on Election Day.
Consideration must also be given to the fact that the state is allowed to accept and count postal ballots received up through November 6, which the Supreme Court on Monday evening just allowed to proceed.
In September, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar gave some reassurance that the Keystone State’s millions of postal ballots won’t take too long to count.
“The overwhelming majority of ballots…will be counted in a matter of days,” the state’s head of elections told The Morning Call. “When people are talking about weeks, I don’t think you’re going to see that in Pennsylvania at all. I think the overwhelming majority of ballots will be counted by the weekend, honestly, and maybe even significantly sooner.”
Boockvar then said that the state is preparing to be more transparent about the counting process, should the process stall. Specifically, Boockvar mentioned she wants the state to report the number of postal ballots left to count instead of explicitly how many votes each candidate has as well as how many votes come from each county and party registration.
Of the millions of postal ballots in Pennsylvania, Montgomery County officials expect 200,000 mail-in ballots alone, according to NBC News 10 Philadelphia.
In the same report, Montgomery County Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence Jr. told NBC News 10 that, despite all the labor-saving equipment he and his team have, it “took us 17 days in the primary to count (105,000) mail-in ballots.”
He estimates that it could take a few days just to count a quarter-million ballots in his county for the general election if the Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled legislature don’t allow them to begin counting before November 3. Whether or not that change will be made appears unlikely due to ongoing gridlock between Gov. Wolf and the legislature.
All things considered, assuming there are no major hiccups, almost all the votes from Pennsylvania will be counted a week after Election Day. By the same token, be prepared for anything to happen. Nothing is guaranteed nowadays.
You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.
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