At least seven Pennsylvania counties will not start processing mail-in ballots until the morning after election day, raising alarm with some voters and the Wolf Administration.
The counties are Beaver, Butler, Cumberland, Franklin, Greene, Mercer, and Montour.
It’s common for counting to continue after election night. But because the number of mail-in ballots is unusually high this year, it may take longer for county elections offices to finish counting them.
Pennsylvania’s status as a swing state for the presidential election means the nation could be waiting for a final tally from the commonwealth in order to know who the next president will be. That’s partly why Wolf administration officials urge counties to start processing mail-in ballots earlier.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman took to Twitter Thursday morning, calling for all counties to start canvassing mailed ballots on election day.
I believe every county should commence canvassing of mail in ballots at 7am on Election Day. https://t.co/hYXzofrEHo
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) October 29, 2020
At a news conference, Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said they were in talks with the counties to convince them to start counting earlier.
Counties are allowed to start pre-canvassing, or opening ballots and counting them, when the polls open at 7 a.m. on election day, Nov. 3.
Canvassing, or actually recording the vote, can’t start until 8 p.m. on the 3rd.
After more than two hours of contentious public comment Thursday afternoon, Cumberland County’s Bureau of Elections voted 2-1 to start processing mail-in ballots at 9 a.m. on Nov. 4.
The three county commissioners who make up the BOE said their decision is to give staff time to equally focus on mail-in and in-person ballots. They also said they want to ensure staff health and safety as well as election security.
They said that, unlike some other counties, Cumberland is not using contractors or volunteers to handle ballots but only sworn county election personnel. They don’t want those employees — tired after a long election day — working through the night to count mailed ballots.
Because of COVID-19, workers will need enough space to maintain social distance from each other and from poll watchers. Commissioners said the designated space will be too busy on election day to allow that, and they did not want to transport ballots to another, larger location because they were concerned something could happen to the ballots in transit.
But dozens of people who tuned into the commissioners’ online election meeting objected to the ballots being treated differently, saying it would affect the perception of the results and voter confidence. They also raised concerns about a legal challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding whether mail-in ballots received after Nov. 3 should be counted.
The court on Wednesday declined to hear a Republican appeal to exclude mail-in ballots received after Election Day. But it said it could review the Nov. 6 deadline for receiving ballots and potentially throw out ballots received after Nov. 3.
Chairman Gary Eichelberger, a Republican, repeatedly said they will count every vote that comes in during the allowed time.
He also said they can’t predict and have no control over what the Supreme Court might do, but expressed doubt that it would try to throw out votes.
“If we have thousands of ballots in-hand and the Supreme Court says, ‘Don’t count those,’ there’s going to be serious trouble in this country,” he said.
Even if they did pre-canvass, Director of Elections Bethany Salzarulo said, it’s unlikely they would have many mailed ballots counted on election night.
The county has issued 60,075 mail-in ballots. By Thursday afternoon, 46,964 had been returned.
Commissioner Jean Foschi, a Democrat, voted against the motion to start processing mail-in ballots on Nov. 4. She blamed the concern over mail-in ballots on a lack of leadership at the federal level.
President Donald Trump has baselessly claimed mail-in ballots are prone to fraud and said there must be results on election night. In most years, counting continues past election night and votes are not certified until days later.
“The leader of the free world is, in essence, threatening to interfere with this election, he’s threatening a coup,” Foschi said.
Ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. on election day will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Nov. 6.
The Wolf Administration is urging people who haven’t mailed their ballots yet to drop them off at county election offices or official drop boxes.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.