Pennsylvania is one of the most important states in determining the next president, and Republican President Donald J. Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden have both expressed fears about the state.
But their fears haven’t been about whether they can win Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes — the most of any battleground state other than Florida, which has 29.
Both candidates are worried about how votes will be counted in Pennsylvania and if they’ll be counted on time.
Biden on June 10 was troubled by the results of the state’s June 2 primary not being fully tallied at that point.
Delays like that provide fodder for questioning the integrity of the vote in Pennsylvania, where Trump has filed lawsuits over mail-in voting procedures.
U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan fast-tracked the lawsuit in July and on Thursday ordered the Trump campaign and the Republican Party to produce evidence they have of mail-in voting fraud in Pennsylvania.
Trump has claimed for months that mail-in voting in states with Democratic governors would lead to massive fraud and suggested delaying the Nov. 3 general election, which the president legally has no power to do.
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As the pandemic was climbing to its peak in Pennsylvania and several other states, and most residents were following stay-at-home orders, Trump urged his party to resist expansions to mail-in voting.
“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” Trump tweeted on April 8. “Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
In a court filing, his campaign said mail-in voting in Pennsylvania raises questions about the accuracy of election results “and ultimately chaos.”
Trump’s repeated claims for months that mail-in voting is fraudulent have prompted fears among top Democrats that the president is suppressing the vote amid his trailing poll numbers.
“It’s my greatest concern. My single greatest concern. This president is going to try to steal this election,” Biden last month told Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.” “This is the guy who said all mail-in ballots are fraudulent — voting by mail — while he sits behind a desk in the Oval Office and writes his mail-in ballot to vote in the primary.”
But because Pennsylvania was still counting votes a week after the election in heavily populated counties, Trump seized on an opportunity to make false claims about voter fraud, Biden said.
“This was sort of the implicit threat: We might not know who won Pennsylvania until a month after the election,” he said.
Delays in Pennsylvania results were not caused by fraudulent voting. State law prevents county election officials from processing mail-in ballots until Election Day, causing the count to take longer.
As more states move to mail-in voting during the pandemic, there’s an increased chance that the winner of the presidential election will not be revealed on Nov. 3. When those results do come in, Trump claims they can’t be trusted.
“You won’t know the election result for weeks, months, maybe years after,” Trump said on July 31. “Maybe you’ll never know the election result. And that’s what I’m concerned with. It’ll be fixed. It’ll be rigged.”
Trump said he wants a clear result on election night, not days or weeks later.
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The election won’t be held for another two months, but if Trump loses, as state and national polling suggests he will, the president has already questioned the validity of a Biden win.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Trump tweeted on July 30. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
Those comments received bipartisan criticism, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a senior Senate Republican from Kentucky, who said the date is set by the U.S. Constitution and can only be changed by Congress.
“Never in the history of the country, through wars and depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we’ll find a way to do that again this November 3,” he said.
Trump has since backed off of changing the election date, but he’s still trying to dismantle mail-in voting.
Data in nearly every state shows that more Democrats than Republicans are signing up for mail-in voting amid the pandemic.
That might be due to Trump’s own messaging, according to Terry Madonna, pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
“The president is saying mail-in voting is fraudulent, which may be keeping supporters in his party from voting by mail and leading to higher signups on the Democratic side,” he said.
Challenges with mail-in voting were amplified last week as Trump and Democrats faced off about funding of the U.S. Postal Service.
Democrats have requested more than $10 billion to help postal workers process an influx of mailed ballots as many Americans continue to avoid crowds and Election Day lines during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump has opposed that financing, seemingly aware that his decision could potentially discourage voting.
“They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said on Fox Business Network. “If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
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The Biden campaign and Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, said the president is trying to sabotage the election.
“The President of the United States is sabotaging a basic service that hundreds of millions of people rely upon, cutting a critical lifeline for rural economies and for delivery of medicines, because he wants to deprive Americans of their fundamental right to vote safely during the most catastrophic public health crisis in over 100 years,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the postal service told Pennsylvania and dozens of other states that mail-in ballots may not be delivered on time because the state’s deadlines are “too tight.”
State election officials have asked the state Supreme Court to have mailed ballots counted as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3 and received within three days of the general election.
If the court agrees, that would validate fears from Trump and Biden that it will take days to find out who Pennsylvania chooses.
But while the president has publicly called mail-in voting fraudulent, he and first lady Melania Trump applied for a mail-in ballot for the Florida primary, according to USA Today.
Trump said last week that mail-in voting in Florida is OK because it is led by a Republican governor, and the process there is “safe and secure, tried and true.”
A fall fight
As the coronavirus continues to spread, the state is preparing for one of the most contested elections in modern history.
Gov. Tom Wolf said he sees Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting as a solution during the coronavirus, not a problem.
“That is a really good way to avoid contact with other people,” he said. “Vote from home. You have 50 days to do it. You can start voting 50 days before election day. There’s no reason you have to expose yourself to this virus.”
He said the 1.5 million Pennsylvanians who voted by mail in the June 2 primary proved that state voters liked the new system.
“I think the November election will show that even more,” Wolf said.
Some 1.8 million Pennsylvanians requested mail-in ballots in the primary, and 1.5 million voted. The state is expecting twice that many in the general election.
Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting was signed into law in the fall, months before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the state.
Even though there’s mail-in voting, Pennsylvania residents can still vote in person at their local polling places.
Voting changes approved Oct. 31 were designed to expand voting options, make it easier to vote and also provide a clear paper trail of Pennsylvania’s choice, which was intended to boost voter confidence and integrity.
But there have been some unintended consequences along the way, such as voting machine malfunctions in precincts and a higher-than-expected number of mail-in voters because of the pandemic.
Something Pennsylvania can do to have a smoother general election is change its laws to allow mail-in ballots to start being counted before Election Day, according to Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington, D.C..
That effort is already underway in Pennsylvania. The Legislature is looking at changes to when counting could begin and also whether the deadline to request ballots should be two weeks before the election instead of one week before the election. A vote is expected this month.
Lawmakers “need to expand the time for election officials to process ballots ahead of Election Day,” McReynolds said.
Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maryland, Iowa, Minnesota, and New York all need this change, she said.
“It’s not partisan, but operational,” McReynolds said. “Election officials simply need more days and time.”
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But regardless of what state legislatures do, Trump’s handling of the postal service will likely cause problems in the run up to the general election, she said.
The postal service doesn’t just deliver mailed ballots. It also carries notices for poll workers, polling locations, voter registration requirements and election notices that are required by law,” McReynolds said.
“The postal service is the only entity in the country that serves all election officials and all voters almost every day,” she said. “Election administration should be free from partisan politics, and so should the postal service.”
Because of all the doubt created in the months leading to the election, and the partisan divide that has grown wider each year, the November election is going to get more contentious, Madonna said.
And the fight for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes is going to be intense, he said. So far, the state has been the most visited by the candidates and their surrogates.
If there are delays in results on election night, could Pennsylvania be in the national spotlight the way Florida was in 2000, when the race between then-Republican nominee George W. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore came down to one state?
“Well, we don’t have hanging chads,” Madonna said. “I don’t know if I’d go that far. But if it’s close, I think it’s going court — and maybe even if it’s not close. I would be stunned if there aren’t multiple lawsuits. I don’t know how we end this election without a big debate.”
Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
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