By Sarah Niebler
With voters across the Commonwealth receiving and returning ballots already, Election Day has turned into Election Month. And given the administrative tasks election officials face on Nov. 3, it seems possible Election Month will turn into Election Season.
It is also likely Pennsylvania’s results will not be “called” on Election Night, and as the Keystone State counts its ballots, the results of the presidential election may hang in the balance.
While having results delayed by several days or weeks will be disappointing for everyone hoping for a quick result on Nov. 3, it is critical to understand slow election results do not equal fraudulent election results. Voter fraud in Pennsylvania and across the country is exceedingly rare.
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators. This is true whether votes are cast in person or by absentee or mail-in ballots.
Election administration is far more complicated than most voters realize. Due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania will see more voters cast ballots via absentee and mail-in votes than ever before.
In October 2019 – pre-pandemic – the Republican-controlled state legislature and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf agreed to a collection of voting reforms.
One of those reforms created “no-excuse” absentee voting, meaning any registered voter could request a ballot be mailed to their home; Pennsylvania voters no longer needed to sign an affidavit indicating they could not physically make it to the polls on Election Day.
The good news about this reform is the Commonwealth did not have to make hasty changes to its election laws with the onset of COVID-19.
In fact, lawmakers were able to have a discussion about voting reforms before the most recent round of polarized rhetoric on the topic. The bad news is, like many other states, Pennsylvania has no precedent to guide us in estimating how long it might take for ballots to be counted and results to be reported.
According to Pennsylvania law, absentee (or mail-in) ballots cannot begin to be counted until 7 a.m. on Election Day. This means county election officials will need to balance their work on Nov. 3 between staffing polling places, responding to inquiries from in-person precincts and opening and counting absentee and mail-in ballots.
In 2016, fewer than 300,000 absentee ballots were mailed to voters across the Commonwealth. With the change in law combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.8 million voters requested absentee or mail-in ballots in the rescheduled 2020 presidential primary.
While Pennsylvania voters have until Oct. 27 to request their mail-in or absentee ballot, estimates suggest at least 3 million such ballots will be requested. Accurately counting this ten-fold increase will simply take time.
Here’s another issue to consider: in the 2020 presidential primary, Democrats were significantly more likely to vote by mail than were Republicans. In Pennsylvania, that seems destined to be true in the general election, as well. Nearly three times as many registered Democrats have requested absentee and mail-in ballots compared to Republicans, and Democrats are returning mail-in ballots at higher rates, too.
This means early vote returns from precincts reflecting in-person vote totals are likely to show leads for Republican candidates. It is entirely possible Republicans will lead the state based on Election Day returns, but Democrats will close the gap as absentee and mail-in ballots are counted.
As a professor and political junkie, I am a huge fan of voting in person. I love the neighborhood camaraderie of my local polling precinct each Election Day.
I also love being able to greet my students when they leave the polling place having cast their ballots, many for the first time. Moreover, I love staying up late on Election Night watching returns come in and not going to sleep until I know who the next president is going to be.
I am likely to still stay up late on Nov. 3, but I have come to terms with the fact I probably won’t know the winner of the presidential election.
However, I am not going to lose sleep over the slower speed of election results. It is far more important to get the count correct than it is to get the count quickly. Counting all eligible votes is the hallmark of a democracy.
Sarah Niebler is an associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Follow her on Twitter @Sarah_Niebler.