by Charlie Wolfson and Juliette Ruhl
On election night in 2016, voters across the country stayed up into the early morning hours awaiting the presidential election results. The race was a nail-biter, but at 2:30 a.m. — six and a half hours after polls in Pennsylvania closed — the Associated Press called the election for Donald Trump.
The timing of election night on Nov. 3 will likely be very different.
With more than 2.8 million Pennsylvanians requesting mail-in ballots as of Oct. 21, and election officials unable to begin processing stacks of mail-in ballots before Election Day, there is almost guaranteed to be an unprecedented delay in results. And that’s not even considering the possibility of candidates challenging the validity of ballots.
As a battleground state that Trump won by less than a percentage point in 2016, Pennsylvania is regarded as one of the most pivotal states in deciding the next president. And some experts around the county have voiced concerns that Republicans could challenge the validity of ballots in the state, potentially causing confusion and doubt.
We know the results will be closely scrutinized. But what if people don’t know who won for days, or weeks?
PublicSource heard from six local elections experts about what challenges are inherent to this election, when voters can expect election results and why voters shouldn’t panic if we don’t know a winner right away.
Will we have results on election night?
All six experts PublicSource spoke to agreed: It’s a foregone conclusion that Pennsylvania voters will not see conclusive election results on election night or early the following morning. Voters have already requested more than 2.8 million mail-in ballots, which can’t be opened for processing until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
“We’re not going to know it on election night. That’s just the way it’s going to be,” said Marian Schneider, an election and voting rights consultant for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the former president of the election integrity nonprofit Verified Voting. “We’re going to have to have patience. The value should be accuracy.”
Adding to the counting challenge is a recent state Supreme Court decision, which ruled that counties are required to count mail-in and absentee ballots received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 — three days after Election Day — as long as the ballots are postmarked before polls close.
Some states, including Pennsylvania, are also experiencing U.S. Postal Service mail slowdowns. But there are now other avenues for voters to return their ballots, such as satellite elections offices. “So I think the post office concerns remain, but I think there are more options now for voters to still get those ballots returned,” said Chris Deluzio, the policy director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security.
During the June 2 primary election, Allegheny County counted the bulk of its ballots by June 4, though it took the county until June 17 to completely wrap up counting. The county board of elections certified the votes on June 22.
Allegheny County wasn’t alone — half of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties were still counting ballots a week after Election Day, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.
And even when there is a day-of result, votes must still be certified and officially reported to the state by county elections officials. According to Pennsylvania law, this must be done no later than the third Monday after the election. “Those results we see now on election night, they’re really not the official results yet,” Deluzio said.
OK… so when will we have results?
Experts were hesitant to say exactly when results might be available but were confident that Pennsylvania counties would meet the Nov. 23 state deadline for all counties to finish counting and reporting votes.
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said during an Oct. 16 press conference that she fully expects to have the “overwhelming majority” of votes tallied “in a matter of days.”
Scott Seebor, the Pennsylvania state director for voting advocacy organization All Voting is Local, agreed. “I think that Pennsylvania is on track to be able to have a count within, I would say, safely, seven days of the election,” he said.
Suzanne Almeida, interim director of Common Cause Pennsylvania declined to specify a date because she did not want to risk giving an inaccurate prediction. But she said she thought counties took lessons from the June 2 primary to be more efficient in processing mail-in ballots.
The count could be slowed further if there are widespread challenges to the results, which many experts expect the Trump campaign to pursue. The president has baselessly claimed that mail-in voting is particularly susceptible to fraud, despite independent studies and government research showing otherwise.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a state Supreme Court decision to allow ballots received up to three days after Election Day to be counted. But the decision was split 4-4, and with the Senate aiming to confirm conservative Amy Coney Barrett to the court before Election Day, a future challenge to mail-in ballots could end differently.
Schneider too is reluctant to predict when the count will be complete.
“I will tell you quite frankly, it’s gonna depend on how much disruption there is,” she said. For example, if any ballots are challenged, it will take time for the election court to make a determination about them.
Almeida said it will be key for the public and the media to accept the “culture shift” of not expecting results a few hours after polls close.
“I think with any kind of shift like this, there’s certainly going to be some discomfort, right?” Almeida said. “I was one of those people, I stayed up till what was it, 3:30, on Election Day in 2016, to wait to see what the results were. And there’s no need to do that this year.”
Will the outcome of the presidential race depend on Pennsylvania’s results?
The short answer: possibly.
While there are countless scenarios for the electoral map, there’s a reason why Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes are so prized by both candidates. FiveThirtyEight forecasted in a Sept. 15 article that winning Pennsylvania would give Joe Biden a 96% chance of winning the presidency, while Trump would have an 84% chance of being reelected if he wins the Keystone State. As of Oct. 21, FiveThirtyEight rated Pennsylvania as the state most likely to be the “tipping point” in the election — a 28% likelihood.
Some other key swing states will likely have results much faster than Pennsylvania, though. Florida, with 29 electoral votes and a close race between Trump and Biden, allows for ballot processing to begin 40 days before the election. The Florida result, depending on other outcomes across the map, has the potential to make Pennsylvania’s drawn-out count less consequential for the presidential race.
Is there any good news?
While 2020 has seen major changes in the election process, many short-term concerns are growing pains that will benefit voters in the long run, experts said. All 67 Pennsylvania counties have new voting systems, and in 47 of them, the ballot will be marked with a pen and put into a scanner directly. “That is an extraordinarily good thing, because that means there is a way to make sure the results are accurate, either by doing an audit or, if it’s very close, doing a recount.” Schneider said. “So that’s huge.”
Mail-in ballots also act as a paper record, which Schneider said should give voters confidence in the process. “We can have a lot more confidence in the results because we can check.”
Digital voting systems were phased out in part because of concerns that they could be hacked into and lacked a paper record of votes.
Satellite mail-in voting offices have also been a significant benefit for voters, said Maryn Formley, executive chair of the Voter Empowerment Education and Enrichment Movement in Pittsburgh. At five locations during three weekends in October, voters who are unsure about the mail-in process can request a mail-in ballot, receive it and submit it all at once.
“It removes all of the drama, from the slowness in the mail carrying, applying online and hoping that it came through,” Formley said.
The locations will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 24 and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 25.
“[T]he investments that counties have made in funding from various sources are going to remain in those counties past this election,” Seebor said. “And that’s a very, very good thing.”
Why can’t we start counting votes ahead of time?
The Pennsylvania legislature would have to amend the state’s election laws in order for county election clerks to be allowed to unseal and process ballots before Election Day. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, called for such a move in August. But the state’s Republican-controlled House and Senate have not taken action, with Republicans calling for their own set of provisions to be included.
Boockvar, who oversees the election as secretary of state, criticized state lawmakers in an Oct. 16 press conference, pointing out that Pennsylvania is one of just four states that have not passed legislation to expand pre-canvassing.
“The issue of pre-canvassing is not a party issue, it’s not a particular slant in any direction. This is something that every one of 67 counties has been urging,” Boockvar said. “This is one simple change that would cost nothing, would completely solve the problem, and have no side effects.”
Should we be worried?
The bottom line: trust the process. “It’s going to take time to count the ballots, and that’s okay. That means the process is working,” Schneider said.
Seebor agreed. “When election officials take time to count and verify each ballot, it’s good for democracy,” he said. “And so as much as the world will really be [waiting] for the results, it’s even more important that they get it right.”
Charlie Wolfson is a freelance reporter in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Amanda Hernández.