Map: How Pa. counties plan to count 3.1 million mail-in ballots

Stacks of boxes holding mail are seen at a U.S. Post Office sorting center. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images.

Pennsylvania counties have already received more than 2 million mail ballots for the Nov. 3 General Election – but under state law, they can’t touch them until 7 a.m. on Election Day. 

In the meantime, local election officials are lying in wait, readying hundreds of volunteers and county employees, a stockpile of high-speed scanners and letter openers, and – in some cases – plans to work round-the-clock until the votes are counted. 

The Capital-Star staff surveyed the state’s 67 county election directors to learn how they’ll tackle the mountain of mail-in ballots, which are expected to exceed 3 million statewide.

We asked each county how many staffers they’ll assign to open envelopes, extract ballots and prepare them for scanning starting on Nov. 3. We also wanted to know what equipment they have on hand to speed up the process, when they plan to begin and what hours they intend to work.

We’re tracking their responses in an interactive map, which we’ll update as more counties respond to our repeated calls and emails.

Why do these nitty-gritty details matter? Because Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that does not open mail-in ballots before Election Day – a dubious distinction during a pandemic that’s driven a record number of people to vote by mail, and one that election officials have said for months will prolong the vote count in the Nov. 3 election. 

If the presidential race comes down to Pennsylvania, the work of county election offices will determine how quickly the nation knows the result.

County officials appealed to lawmakers for months to change state law and let them open envelopes ahead of Election Day and prepare ballots for counting, a process known as pre-canvassing.

County leaders such Gene DiGirolamo, a Bucks County commissioner who served 25 years in the state House, said a pre-canvassing extension seemed like a no-brainer.

“It doesn’t benefit Democrats or Republicans, it benefits the state of Pennsylvania to be able to report our vote totals on election night,” DiGirolamo said. “The eyes of the whole country might be looking at Pennsylvania to see who won the presidential election.”

But negotiations to extend the pre-canvassing period collapsed earlier this month, as Republican leaders insisted on conditions that included loosening requirements for poll watchers and giving voters less time to request mail-in ballots.

The inaction dealt a blow to county officials, who will rely on manpower and state-of-the-art equipment to accelerate their Election Day workload.

“We’ve got a plan, but we would much rather have had the pre-canvassing extension,” DiGirolamo said. “We were very disappointed … but we’re going to do our best with the laws on the books.”

Bucks County has recruited 300 county employees to help process nearly 193,000 mail ballots it’s sent to voters.

Along with a handful of other populous counties across the state – including Philadelphia, Allegheny, and Montgomery – Bucks employees plan to work 24/7 until the ballots are counted. 

Some counties have supplemented their workforce with dozens of volunteers or temporary workers. Jurisdictions expecting a small volume of mail ballots will rely on in-house labor.

In Potter County, the job of processing an anticipated 1,900 mail ballots will fall to the three elected county commissioners, who will start opening envelopes at 9 a.m. on Election Day.  

Many officials told us they were still finalizing their staffing plans, and will use a formula to decide how many people to assign to mail ballots on Election Day.

Columbia County Elections Director Matthew Repasky told the Capital-Star his office will recruit one county employee for every 500 ballots the Elections Bureau receives – a ratio that works out to 20 people canvassing the 10,000 ballots the county has sent to voters.

At least three counties – Cumberland, Greene and Montour counties – say they’re prioritizing in-person voting operations on Election Day and will start opening mail-in envelopes on Nov. 4. 

“Election day is typically busy for us,” Montour County Election Director Holly Brandon told the Capital-Star in an email. “If time permits, our office staff will open the outer envelopes on election day … Otherwise, we are planning to start Wednesday morning.”

In Juniata County, four employees will start opening envelopes when polls close at 8 p.m. on election night. But they won’t start counting the votes until the next morning. 

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar is urging all local election officials to start the count on Election Day.

“We’re going to have a conversation with every county that says they are waiting until after Tuesday,” Boockvar told reporters during a Thursday briefing.

The Capital-Star’s 67 county survey was conducted by Associate Editor Cassie Miller, Staff Reporters Stephen Caruso and Elizabeth Hardison, and Correspondent Shayma Mussa, along with Hearken Election SOS Fellows Kenny Cooper and Rjaa Ahmad.