To avoid a crisis on Election Day, Pa. needs to count its mail-in ballots much sooner | Mark O’Keefe

Voters line up at a polling place on Election Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Picture this. It’s election day, Nov. 3, 2020.

The entire country has voted and everyone is sitting back, waiting for the votes to be counted. The results start coming in and by late-night, it’s clear that the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is going to be a squeaker.

The results are all in  — except for Pennsylvania. And with its 20 electoral votes up for grabs, the outcome of the presidential election is up in the air.

The problem is that the results are coming in very slow thanks mainly to the millions of Pennsylvanians who voted by mail. In fact, it’s taking days to count all the mail-in votes.

Trump takes an early lead and goes on TV to make an acceptance speech. His supporters are convinced that he’s won the state and another four years in the White House.

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Meanwhile, the vote counting continues, particularly the mail-ins from Philadelphia, and Biden starts getting closer and closer to Trump. Finally a week after the election, Biden overtakes Trump to win Pennsylvania and the presidency.

Imagine the hue and protests that would follow with Trump crying foul and vowing that he was the victim of another conspiracy. No doubt his supporters would back him to the end, no matter what. The country could be in unprecedented turmoil with Trump refusing to leave the White House.

Think we couldn’t have an election like that in Pennsylvania? Well, we just had one with this month’s Pennsylvania presidential primary.

It was certainly a weird election.

Postponed from April because of COVID-19, it was the first election since the state expanded its mail-in voting system last year doing away with the old absentee ballot system, which provided only narrow exceptions.

And Pennsylvanians took advantage of the new law with 1.4 million people voting by mail, much more than anyone thought possible. Philadelphia was especially overwhelmed by mail-in votes.

Finally, most of those votes were certified by Thursday although some were still trickling in on Friday.

Just like the scenario above, Trump did lead for several days after the election. Republicans were elated, thinking that he received more votes than Biden and touted the strong showing as proof that he would win Pennsylvania again in the fall.

In a recent column for the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, conservative Charlie Gerow prematurely crowed about what was then Trump’s 100,000-vote edge over Biden, writing that the primary was “the first real opportunity for the silent majority to speak. And they did.”

The result didn’t hold.

As of June 19, with 99 percent of precincts of reporting, unofficial tallies from the Department of State showed Biden leading Trump 1.25 million to 1.04 million votes, an advantage of more than 206,000 votes.

Gerow and other Republicans would be quick to point out that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton received more votes than Trump in Pennsylvania’s 2016 presidential primary but ended up losing to him by barely a percentage point in November.

Overall, Democratic presidential candidates picked up 1,681,427 votes that year, 86,952 more votes than the 1,594,475 tallies picked up by Republican presidential candidates.

However, this year Democrat presidential candidates collected 1,505,907 votes, 384,097 more than the 1,121,810 votes collected by Republican presidential candidates.

While the numbers favor Biden and his fellow Democrats by a large margin, the election is five months away and anything can happen between now and then as we’ve seen with the COVID-19 and the racial protests, neither of which could have been foreseen six months ago.

The presidential race could still come down to Pennsylvania in the end and there are some things that election officials should be doing to make sure the count is done quicker. We simply can’t wait a week for the presidential election votes to be counted.

The main thing is that election officials should be able to start counting the mail-in votes before the election,  the sooner the better.

Fearful of leaks in the release of the numbers, Republican leaders in the state Legislature had prevented election officials from counting mail-in votes until the polls closed on Tuesday. That’s way too late. Starting the count earlier is a must.

The hope is that election officials will also have a better idea of how many people will be needed to count all the mail-in votes. Hire people now and get them trained so they’ll be ready by November.

One thing is certain. Mail-in voting is here to stay. People like the convenience and freedom of being able to vote when they want not when someone else wants them to vote.

Why would anyone wait for three hours to vote at the polls, when you can fill out your ballot and mail it in within minutes? Besides, chances are Covid-19 will still be around in the fall so why take a chance of getting the virus by going to the polls.

But given all that, there’s still the message being given by Trump, despite the lack of any evidence, that there’s something fraudulent with mail-in voting. Democrats and Republicans alike must make it clear that mail-in voting is safe and secure.

Trump has to be stopped from using this as a fallback position if he loses in November.

In the end, mail-in voting can’t be hijacked by a politician, even if he is the president. This country’s democracy is at stake in this election more so than at any time in our history.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of The Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly.