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Summer Lee or Steve Irwin? Outcome of Pittsburgh's congressional race should be clearer today

Summer Lee (left) and Steve Irwin are in a close race for Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.
Rebecca Droke
A file photo of ballots being counted at the Allegheny County Election Division warehouse on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.

Western Pennsylvania voters may be much closer to knowing who their Congressional representative will be by the end of the day Friday. Allegheny County officials say that by day’s end, they should have results from a small number of voting machines whose tallies haven’t been included in vote totals so far. 

The machines in question were located in 31 voting districts scattered about the county, and the additional votes in question won’t make a difference in most races. (Mail-in ballots have been counted for each district; it’s only the in-person totals that are missing from those districts.) But the county estimates they could contain more than 6,000 votes in all, and 26 of the machines were used within the 12th Congressional District, where frontrunners Summer Lee and Steve Irwin are currently separated by the smallest of margins

Most of the district lies in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County suburbs, and Leehad a comfortable 4-percentage-point margin of victory there. But Irwin outperformed Lee by more than a two-to-one margin in Westmoreland County, leaving Lee with an advantage of just 446 votes — or less than half of 1 percent of ballots counted in the five-person race.

What happened to the machines? In almost every case, when election workers handed in voting materials at the end of the night — the poll books and provisional ballots filled out during the day — they failed to hand in a memory stick that keeps a running total of vote tallies as the scanner reads the ballots. (Each machine holds two such sticks: one removed for the unofficial count on Election Night, the other used for the formal count afterward.) The sticks were left in the machines, which were sealed to prevent tampering.

According to county spokeswoman Amie Downs and others versed in election procedures who spoke with WESA, such problems aren’t uncommon in any given election. There are more than 1,300 polling places in the county, each is staffed by fallible human beings. 

“We rely on some 6,600 people to conduct our elections,” Downs said. “There is training, and videos that they use as refreshers, and there is a detailed handbook. But people do make mistakes.”

Once they do, the logistics of recovering the sticks afterward can be complicated. Merely collecting the machines is a logistical headache: “It takes six days to distribute the machines, and six days to bring them back,” Downs said. 

Happily for the candidates — and for supporters in both camps with heart conditions — the county retrieved most of the uncounted machines Wednesday. County workers have the results from those in hand, though they won’t be added to the total until after the Return Board process begins Friday morning. On Thursday afternoon, the county said it had the other machines in hand. 

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That sets the scene for a Friday-afternoon extraction of the memory sticks from those last machines. That is set to happen at 2 p.m., and once those numbers are uploaded, the winner of the district could be much clearer. 

Or not.

The county also has 1,964 uncounted provisional ballots in hand (though not all of these were cast in the Democratic primary, or in the 12th District). Provisional ballots are cast when there is some question about a voter’s eligibility to cast a ballot, and those ballots are set aside until the circumstances of each one can be reviewed separately. That can take days.

But for now, the campaigns appear to be content to let the process play out.

The mood in the Lee camp is especially upbeat — Lee herself has declared victory, along with the groups supporting her. The optimism is based in part on Lee’s existing lead, and in part on the campaign’s own investigations, which lead it to believe her lead will expand. 

After election night, polling places post paper receipts of their vote count at the sites themselves. The Lee campaign says it’s seen 16 of those receipts, and that she will net more than 100 additional votes from those places. 

Irwin’s camp, meanwhile, is urging that no one rush to judgment about a winner. In a post-election campaign statement, Irwin said, “We need to respect the process of counting the ballots and make sure that every single vote is counted. … Unfortunately, that may take a few more days. But I am confident it won’t take much longer."

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.