‘This is what sets us apart from other swing states’: How Philadelphia counts its mail-in ballots and what that could mean for the Presidential Election

Written by on November 6, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat

Ballot counting continues in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania and all eyes are on its biggest county, Philadelphia, where officials count the last few votes, many of them sent by mail. Some of these are ballots that were postmarked by the November 3rd deadline and must arrive by today (Friday of Election Week) to be counted.

Officials in the Keystone State had long anticipated not having 2020 election results finalized by the end of Election Day. That’s in large part due to the record number of voters who opted into using mail-in ballots to cast their vote in this election — roughly 2.6 million votes. It’s typical for mail-in ballots to take some time to process, but unlike states such as Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia,  Pennsylvania law dictated that election officials could not start processing mail-in ballots until 7 AM on Election Day.

Patrick Christmas is the Policy Director at the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan civic leadership organization that advances representative, ethical and effective government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania through citizen engagement and public policy advocacy.

“The counties, the Department of State, and voting advocates were all calling our election directors to provide more time to pre-canvas the ballot,” said Christmas. “But instead of passing a clean bill and just giving us three days, four days, anything, we got stuck with not being able to start until Election Day which is what sets us and Wisconsin apart from these other swing states.”

Pre-canvasing refers to the labor intensive process of examining the declaration on the outer envelope, extracting the ballots, and preparing them for scanning and tabulations. Waiting until Election Day to start this process has meant that election officials in Philadelphia (and the rest of the state) had to invest in greater staff and equipment to get through the ballots as quickly as possible.

‘Democrats were three times more likely than Republicans to return mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania’

Philadelphia has more than 1.1 million registered voters — and a majority of these are Democrats. It’s no wonder that the rest of the country is looking to Philadelphia to potentially define the election. According to Larry Diamond, professor of political science at Stanford University, a win in Pennsylvania for Democratic candidate Joe Biden would definitively make him the next President of the United States.

“We shouldn’t fail to note that Philadelphia is the cradle of our constitution and hence of our democracy,” said Diamond.  “But it’s the obvious political math here that [President Donald] Trump can’t win the presidency without winning Pennsylvania. Biden can’t lose the presidency if he wins Pennsylvania. If everyone who wanted to vote in Philadelphia — which is obviously overwhelmingly Democratic — was able to do so, that certainly increases the chances that Biden will carry Pennsylvania since his vote will come disproportionately from Philadelphia.”

Democrats were three times more likely than Republicans to return mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. And as ballots cast by mail continue to come in and be processed, there’s a strong probability that they will lean more blue. That is in large part due to President Trump’s allegations and rhetoric about mail-in ballots being more prone to fraud and corruption, which have proliferated the election cycle this year.

“Trump was trashing the mail-in ballots as being fraudulent and so Republican [voters] steered away from them,” explained Diamond. “[And] he knew he was going to be in the lead in critical states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania —  in the beginning because the Democrats were disproportionately voting by mail. But [Trump’s] got nothing against mail-in voting, he does it himself. What he’s got something against is losing an election.”

Democrats have always voted by mail at higher rates than Republicans but the shift we’ve seen unfold over the last few days in Pennsylvania is much more substantial.

“Most of the in-person count [that] was available election night across Pennsylvania included most of the Republican vote,” said Christmas. “[But] what we’ve been seeing and what we’ll continue to see is this blue shift where the margin between the President and Vice President Biden is going to narrow.”

Ultimately, ballot counting has been a round-the-clock operation, with very few hiccups. But various attempts from the Trump campaign to halt counting compounded with the tremendous misinformation around the security of mail-in voting has sowed doubt in the minds of some Americans.

“We are extremely concerned about the number of Pennsylvanians, the number of Americans who are not going to trust the outcome of this election because there has been so much previous litigation and then so much disinformation about how our elections work,” said Christmas. 

Right now, ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Friday are still eligible to be counted, even as they remain a subject of litigation. According to Christmas, there’s still some trepidation around that.

“If that issue were to be revisited by the US Supreme Court, that could possibly have a consequence.”

The distrust of mail-in ballots also has some big picture consequences for the American electoral system as we know it. If the Trump campaign is successful in invalidating a significant number of legitimate ballots, that would result in a massive act of voter suppression. Diamond is relatively optimistic that those efforts will not prevail but says there’s a related danger.

“If Trump loses the electoral college and then claims that he only lost as a result of fraud related to mail-in ballots, [he may try] to get the Republican legislature in Pennsylvania and Georgia to give him their electoral votes anyway,” Diamond said. “That could create a real crisis for American democracy.”

‘Counting ballots is going to go on for some time’

The work of counting ballots happens at the Philadelphia Convention Center, and election staff are working around the clock, in shifts, to finalize the election results. Throughout the pre-canvassing and canvassing stages staff must examine each envelope and confirm that the elector is entitled to vote and that the declaration on the outer envelope is sufficiently filled out with a name, date and signature. 

Mail-in ballots that don’t meet any of those requirements are set aside to be reviewed later. Otherwise, the ballots are brought to the extraction area where they are opened and then scanned.

“In Philadelphia [this process is] part automated and part by hand,” said Christmas. “And with the way our law is set up folks had to return these ballots within two envelopes so that’s two envelopes that have to be cut open.”

If the secrecy envelope within the declaration envelope contains any texts or symbols that identify the voter or if the secrecy envelope is missing altogether, the ballot is set aside. 

Diamond says the Trump campaign’s strategy might hinge on trying to invalid as many mail-in ballots as possible that don’t exactly meet the ballot procedure standards.

“And so if they can use any excuse at all, for example if the signature doesn’t exactly match or the ballot came in late or something like that,” said Diamond. “If they can individually disqualify enough ballots, their hope is [to] erase whatever margin of victory Biden may have. It’s an unseemly way to win an election.”

Pennsylvania expects to get through the large majority of ballots that remain to be counted by the end of Friday, according to Christmas. But that does not include all the provisional ballots that still need to be accounted for, as well as the ballots that were set aside to be further examined by County Board of Elections officials. The state has a Nov. 23 deadline for receiving all official returns from the counties.

“This work of counting ballots is going to go on for some time and it always does,” said Christmas. “We’re so accustomed to Election Day where we get the results and by Wednesday we’re onto the next thing but counties have always taken some time to get through all the mail-in [and provisional] ballots.”

For Diamond, even if all eligible mail-in ballots are successfully counted, the misinformation around these votes has already caused too much damage.

“The Republican Party has become a party of voter suppression,” he said. “They’re trying to do everything they can to keep votes from being cast and to keep votes from being counted. To my mind, this is not how democracy is supposed to work.”


Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.


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