Why Pennsylvania may not have election night results and why that’s OK

(WASHINGTON) — Pennsylvania is unlikely to have results on election night this November, the state’s top election official said Tuesday, because of a law limiting when mail votes can be processed.

That means voters may again have to wait to learn who wins key races in the battleground state, where the vote count in 2020’s presidential election lasted for days.

“We must again ask for patience,” Leigh Chapman, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of state, told reporters over Zoom.

“Official results will be available within a few days,” she said, predicting that unofficial results also wouldn’t be available on Nov. 8. “This delay does not mean anything nefarious is happening. It simply means that the process is working as it is designed to work in Pennsylvania and that election officials are doing their job to count every vote.”

Chapman attributed the expected delay to the state’s General Assembly deciding not to pass legislation allowing counties to begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day.

As it stands, processing cannot begin until 7 a.m. that day.

News organizations often declare a winner before an official count is issued, based on a detailed analysis of the partial results. But in the 2020 presidential race, it still took four days for ABC News to call Pennsylvania for Joe Biden, a reflection both of how thin the margins tend to be in the longtime purple state and the increased use of mail ballots.

In another election season change, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday vacated an appellate judge’s ruling that had required Pennsylvania counties to count undated ballots, though state rules require voters to date their mail-in envelopes.

But Chapman is still allowing undated ballots to be counted, saying in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon that the Supreme Court ruling “was not based on the merits of the issue and does not affect the prior decision of the Commonwealth Court in any way.”

According to Chapman, more than one million mail-in ballots have been requested, with roughly 5% having been returned. An overwhelming majority of voters requesting mail-in ballots are Democrats, she said. During the last midterm elections, in 2018, roughly 5 million total Pennsylvanians voted.

The state is taking a stronger stance on voter intimidation, Chapman told reporters, and will require county officials to report any intimidation that occurs at drop boxes. The boxes have been baselessly criticized by some Republicans for fostering fraud.

Chapman cited instances in which sheriff’s deputies in Berks County have asked voters at drop boxes if they are returning their own ballot or someone else’s (Pennsylvania law forbids people to return another person’s ballot except in certain circumstances).

“My concern is that when there is law enforcement present, when there is questioning of voters at drop boxes, there could be potential for voter intimidation,” she said. “A lot of voters might not even decide to show up and return their ballot because of that concern.”

Asked whether she worries that Doug Mastriano — the Republican gubernatorial candidate who led the effort to challenge Pennsylvania’s election results in 2020 and has organized a vast poll watcher recruitment effort this fall — may leverage this year’s expected vote count delay to question the results of his own race, Chapman declined to say.

“I don’t comment on what one candidate says or does,” she said, “but my job is to ensure that every eligible voter in Pennsylvania is registered to vote, can cast their ballot and have it counted.”

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