The clock just struck 8 p.m. on election night, which means one thing: polling places across Pennsylvania are closed.
Poll workers are starting to power down voting machines and transport results to their county offices. Hundreds of volunteers are helping county employees process a mountain of paper ballots. And candidates and members of the public are refreshing internet pages and tuning into TV news shows, eager for results to roll in.
It will likely take days for us to get a complete picture of the 2020 vote count. That doesn’t mean anything is awry – officials have to process an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots during a public health emergency. They’re making painstaking efforts to ensure they comply with state laws and guidelines to count each ballot accurately and safely.
We wrote this guide to help voters better understand how their vote gets counted, and what they can expect from local and state officials in the days and weeks ahead.
Here’s what you need to know.
How in-person votes get counted
If you voted in person in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, you likely marked a paper ballot and then fed it into a scanner. The scanner read it, recorded your votes, and stored the ballot in a secure interior chamber.
In-person voting ends statewide at 8 p.m. Once the last voters at a polling place have cast their ballots, election workers can start to seal those voting systems and transport results back to the county office.
Jeff Greenburg, a former Mercer County election director, said counties don’t take identical steps at this point, since they have different voting systems – but they do follow the same general procedures for striking the set after an election.
Across the state, election workers have to power down machines, print paper copies of the results, and secure the ballots that the machines collected throughout the day, which have to be archived for 22 months after an election, Greenburg said.
Poll workers also have to bring back any supplies they brought to the precinct – including voted and unmarked provisional ballots, poll books, public notices – and bring them back to the county election office.
“Nothing gets left at the precinct,” Greenburg said. “We want everything back at the courthouse. If something needs to be thrown away, we do it there.”
Election staff at each polling place also collect the thumb drives that store the results from each ballot scanner. Precinct workers physically transport these results to their county election headquarters to report the results – voting machines and scanners aren’t connected to the internet, so they can’t transmit the data electronically.
If a thumb drive seems like a vulnerable place to store election results, it shouldn’t, Greenburg said.
“The thumb drives will never be stolen or lost because they’re in the hands of sworn election officials the entire time,” Greenburg said.
He noted that some countries also have back-up storage devices in case of emergencies, and all have the paper trail of ballots that can be used in a recount.
It normally takes a couple of hours for all the precincts to close down and transport their results back to the county board of elections. The county board then uploads the data to a central computer and sends the results to the Department of State through its election night reporting software. The board will also start posting the results on the county website.
If voters see that results are taking hours to appear online on election night, “that’s a product of how quickly [election workers] are doing their work and how quickly those thumb drives get back” to the election office, Greenburg said. It could also be the result of polling places closing late because they still had a long line of voters at 8 p.m.
Election officials expect returns from in-person will come out several hours after polls close on Tuesday, as is typical in past election cycles.
But what’s not typical this year is that in-person votes represent only a fraction of the total votes cast in the state, and will likely favor GOP candidates since Republicans were less likely than Democrats to cast mail-in ballots.
Roughly 46 percent of the state’s registered Democrats applied to vote by mail this year, compared to just 22 percent of its registered Republicans.
How mail-in ballots get counted.
Three million Pennsylvania voters were approved to cast ballots by mail this year. Some mailed their ballots to their county election office through the U.S. postal service; others delivered them by hand or deposited them at drop boxes or satellite voting sites.
To count each one, election workers have to examine it to make sure it has a signature, then open two envelopes (the mailing envelope and ballot secrecy envelope), extract the ballot, and unfold, flatten and feed it into a scanner that reads and tabulates the votes.
Most counties started this monumental task at 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning and have been working non-stop throughout the day. Some plan to report partial or complete results from mail-in ballots on election night.
Several counties told the Capital-Star they won’t start counting mail-in ballots until Wednesday, citing staffing concerns.
Many counties are processing mail-in ballots at county offices this year, which will make it easy to transport results from scanners to their central election system. But state officials expect it will take until Friday to scan each ballot
No matter when a county starts opening and scanning mail-in ballots, counties can’t view or make public the vote tallies until 8 p.m. on election night. Once polls close, they can retrieve vote counts from the scanners and report results to the state, just as they did for in-person votes.
A handful of counties – including Philadelphia and its suburbs – will have small armies of staff working 24 hours a day until each ballot is counted, posting updated vote counts at regular intervals. Other counties, such as Butler, won’t release any mail-in vote totals until all the ballots are counted.
If you’re following the results from home this year, you’ll be able to see how many mail-in ballots still need to be counted. Pennsylvania’s new election night dashboard will display results for each race alongside the number of uncounted mail-in ballots.
What happens to the drop boxes? Is it possible for someone to still vote?
Voters who were approved to cast mail ballots had until 8 p.m. on election night to deliver them to county election offices. Now that polls have closed, counties are supposed to seal drop boxes so they can’t accept any more ballots.
Voters who were waiting in line at drop boxes at 8 p.m. were likely turned away. State law allows voters to cast their ballots in-person if they’re stuck in line at a polling place at 8 p.m., but it doesn’t make the same exception for those waiting to deliver mail-in ballots at a drop box, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told reporters Monday.
“Ballots need to be delivered to the county board of elections, which includes dropping it physically in the drop boxes, by 8 p.m.,” Boockvar said.
Under an order from the state Supreme Court, counties must accept and count ballots delivered by the U.S. Postal Service up until Friday, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
But that order is the subject of a legal challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court, and it may be overturned. Counties will still count those ballots, but the Department of State has told election workers to keep them separate from ballots they received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Military and overseas voters, meanwhile, have until Tuesday, Nov. 10 to get their ballots to the county election board.
Making it official
Boockvar has repeatedly said that most counties will include their mail-in vote count by Friday. She told reporters on Monday that she’s not aware of any legal claim a candidate or campaign could make to stop the count before it’s complete
That means that by the end of the week, candidates and members of the public may have enough information to know the outcome of some races. But county election officials – who have spent months working frantically to prepare for the election – will be far from finished with their work.
They’ll spend the next three weeks overseeing the official vote count, double checking their numbers and auditing results to ensure every vote is counted accurately – tasks that can be as demanding as the preparation for the election itself.
“The media, the public, everyone goes away after election day and lets the county do their work,” Greenburg said. “So they never see this behind-the-scenes work that is as critical as what’s happening on election day.”
They start by making sure every absentee and provisional ballot is counted. Military voters and overseas civilians have until the Tuesday after an election to return ballots to their counties, so a complete count always takes at least a week.
County officials then check their work by making sure their numbers match up. They compare the number of ballots they collected from in-person and mail-in voting to the number of votes cast, and are supposed to investigate any discrepancies. They also make sure the vote counts their machines generated on election night match the returns they reported to the state.
County officials are also required by law to conduct a post-election audit, where they hand-count a random sampling of ballots to ensure they were accurately recorded.
All the election results are considered “unofficial” during this period and are only made official once the review is complete and the county election board votes to certify them. That typically happens close to Thanksgiving, Greenburg said – a timeline he thinks counties won’t have any problems meeting this year.
When will we know the outcome of races?
Even though it’s always taken weeks for Pennsylvania counties to certify election results, voters are accustomed to knowing the outcome of most races on election night. That’s largely because TV networks and news wire services such as the Associated Press will declare winners as results come in.
These networks use complicated methodologies that allow them to sometimes make projections before all the votes are reported. But they’ve agreed their work will be much more difficult this year since voting methods vary widely state to state.
The Associated Press has pledged to explain its methods to readers as it declares winners in more than 7,000 races this year, from the presidency to statehouse races.
“AP does not make projections or name apparent or likely winners. If our race callers cannot definitively say a candidate has won, we do not engage in speculation,” the wire service writes. “Only when AP is fully confident a race has been won — defined most simply as the moment a trailing candidate no longer has a path to victory — will we make a call.”
Countless local media outlets – including the Capital-Star – rely on the Associated Press to report on election outcomes. The wire service says it won’t call a race until it has enough data, regardless of whether or not a candidate declares victory or concedes. That means that we won’t report on outcomes until they do.