Pennsylvania’s new early voting program may be more popular than expected, but it may also lead to bigger problems than predicted.
In a state where just over six million people cast ballots in 2016, election officials have already received close to three million requests for early voting ballots.
“It shows the tremendous interest in this election,” says Terry Madonna, professor of politics and public affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College. “It also shows the partisanship and polarization and how deeply voters feel.”
Pennsylvania’s election chief is already warning there may be delays when the counting starts and is urging patience.
“Of course, the closer the race,” says Kathy Boockvar, Secretary of State, “the longer it will take to know who the winner is.”
Biden volunteer Kim Barnes spent Tuesday outside the Lancaster County Government Center in downtown Lancaster, Pa., the county’s only drop box location. Barnes was helping voters from both parties, Democrats and Republicans, avoid having their ballots rejected.
“I make sure they used the secrecy envelope,” Barnes says. “Then I make sure the date on the back of the envelope is 2020. A lot of people put their birthday.”
To be counted, ballots have to be inside two envelopes. The first has the voter’s information and signature. The second is for privacy.
Ballots without the secrecy envelope are considered “naked ballots” and will be rejected.
“I’m nervous that a lot of people might not get the opportunity to get their votes counted,” Barnes says.
Rejecting early voting ballots may advantage Donald Trump. While the president has criticized early voting, claiming it’s open to fraud, the Democratic side has promoted it as a convenient and safe option to avoid lining up on election day.
As a result, registered Democrats have requested more than two and a half times more early voting ballots than registered Republicans.
Of the 2.9 million requests, 65 per cent were from Democrats, for a total of 1.8 million. Republicans only requested 728,000, just over 25 per cent.
The program may be a victim of its own success. There’s fear the big numbers could delay results.
“Some have suggested that it won’t just take days, but weeks, before the election is certified,” Madonna says.
Under state law, election officials are only allowed to begin processing and counting ballots after polls close on election night.
The process has several steps. The voter’s signature and information have to be checked on the outer envelope. That envelope is then run through a machine and opened. The inner secrecy envelope is then opened and the ballot removed for counting.
In September, a state official warned 100,000 ballots could be rejected over confusion with the two envelope process. A number like that could have a major impact in a state where the last presidential election was decided by just 44,000 votes.
Partisan legal wrangling has already been swirling through Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg, and it’s expected to get worse.
Earlier this month, a judge blocked an attempt by the Trump campaign to limit the use of drop boxes. Republican lawyers had also tried to lift a restriction that poll watchers only be assigned to the county where they reside. The argument was that fraud would “dilute” legally cast votes, violating the US and state constitution.
In his judgment, U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Ranjan wrote that the arguments of the Trump campaign’s lawyers were based on speculative assumptions and that they offered no hard evidence.
There was also a legal battle over the deadline for mail-in ballots to be considered. Republican lawyers had tried to block election officials from counting mail-in ballots received after election day.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled ballots could be counted up to three days after election day — until 5 p.m. on Nov. 6, to be precise — so long as they are postmarked by election day.
That challenge went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court this week. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the court’s three liberal justices. The 4-4 vote meant the court did not hear the case, and the lower court’s ruling stands.
The wrangling in Pennsylvania is far from over. Some have called the state the tipping point in this election — whoever wins its 20 electoral college votes likely wins the White House.
Another complication is that with so many early ballots cast by Democrats, the results on election night may not represent the final winner.
Some predict Trump could be ahead in Pennsylvania on election night, but lose the lead in the days after, as mail-in ballots are counted.