What Pennsylvania’s election could have looked like if it counted votes like Florida

States that started counting ballots before Election Day didn’t spend sleepless days afterward catching up.
An envelope with a vote-by-mail ballot inside is shown to the media at the Miami-Dade County Election Department on October 1, 2020 in Doral, Florida.
An envelope with a vote-by-mail ballot inside is shown to the media at the Miami-Dade County Election Department on October 1, 2020 in Doral, Florida. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published Dec. 6, 2020

PHILADELPHIA — Polls had only been closed in Florida for a few hours last month when elections offices started closing up shop for the night, too.

Almost all the votes were counted and reported, and there just wasn’t much left to do at that moment. News organizations had already projected President Donald Trump as the state’s winner. Things in Tampa, for example, shut down by 1 a.m., the county supervisor of elections said.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, elections officials weren’t even halfway through a 50-hour stretch without sleep, at the start of an around-the-clock vote counting process that would continue for days.

“I wanted to take a 12-hour break to let people get some sleep, and it was just impossible,” said Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia’s chief elections official. “And there was no way I would be able to get away with that, because the sky would fall, and all anybody wanted was for us to keep counting.”

It wasn’t until Saturday, four days after Election Day, that enough Pennsylvania votes had been counted for news organizations to declare Joe Biden had won the state — and with it, the presidency. The long wait created an opening for false claims of fraud that Trump and his supporters have exploited.

There are multiple reasons the full picture of Pennsylvania’s results took longer to emerge than in other large battleground states this year, but one stands out: Pennsylvania doesn’t allow mail ballots to be opened until Election Day.

That prohibition was the major factor for the timing of Pennsylvania’s vote count, elections officials and experts said, and an Inquirer analysis of results reported by the Associated Press shows other large battleground states that began counting ballots earlier reported their results much sooner.

By the time officials in Florida went home that night, they’d already been counting mail ballots for more than three weeks. Less than two hours after the close of polls, the state reported more than 95% of its presidential votes. North Carolina began counting votes more than a month before Election Day and reported more than 95% of its votes by 11 p.m. that night.

Similarly, Texas and Ohio began processing votes before Election Day and reported more than 90% of their presidential results by midnight in Pennsylvania.

The wait for results was a direct result of Pennsylvania policies, and a bipartisan cast of county elections officials had urged lawmakers to allow them to begin opening ballots earlier to avoid it. But negotiations between the Republicans who control the state legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, fell apart in the weeks leading up to Election Day, with Republicans ultimately turning away pleas to allow what’s known as “pre-canvassing.”

Elections are complex affairs, with a web of policies that makes every state — and every county — different. Florida and Texas, for example, didn’t just count mail ballots before Election Day, they also had robust in-person early voting that allowed votes to be quickly tallied. And while this was Pennsylvania’s first year allowing all voters to use mail ballots, other states have built their mail voting infrastructure over multiple elections.

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But processing ballots before Election Day is the clear throughline when looking at key states across the country that counted their votes before Pennsylvania, said Charles Stewart, a political scientist at MIT who is a national expert in quantitative measures of election administration.

“You have these other really big states ... they’re dumping results within 15 minutes of the polls’ close and they’re already 75% of the way there in half an hour,” Stewart said. “It’s a pretty straightforward argument to make.”

Votes always take time to count, with elections official checking ballots to ensure they are legitimately cast and accurately recorded. But when that process is complete is a result of both how long it takes to count the votes and when it begins. In other states, it may take the same amount of time, but stretching that over several weeks meant avoiding the kind of all-hands-on-deck rush Pennsylvania saw.

“Everything would be normal,” Stewart said, “rather than an emergency.”

News organizations’ race calls are unofficial declarations, based on sophisticated statistical modeling and on-the-ground reporting. By the time votes are certified, voters and candidates have usually long since accepted the results.

This year, though, Trump and his allies have refused to acknowledge his loss, instead peddling increasingly far-fetched conspiracy theories that are untethered to the facts; suing to try to overturn the election results in several states, including Pennsylvania, racking up a string of court losses; unsuccessfully urging state lawmakers to pursue a radical and legally murky scheme to appoint Trump electors in contravention of the popular vote; and baselessly claiming fraud without providing any evidence in court.

It’s impossible to know how events would have played out in an alternative world in which Pennsylvania counted enough ballots for Biden’s victory to be declared in the hours after voting ended. But it’s clear that the long vote count created a window for mis- and disinformation, with lies and false claims spreading quickly based on a flawed understanding of the counting process.

Because Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, for example — in large part due to Trump’s false attacks on the method — Pennsylvania saw what’s known as a “blue shift.” Trump had a strong majority of the partial vote count on election night that slowly eroded as mail ballots were counted.

Early that Wednesday, Trump declared he had an insurmountable lead in Pennsylvania — a flatly untrue claim. Trump and his supporters have pointed to the blue shift as a sign of fraud, even though it is instead simply a result of the time it takes to count mail ballots and the partisan skew in who used those ballots.

“These patterns in the count were really easy to spin into a malicious narrative,” said William T. Adler, election technologist at Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington-based civil liberties nonprofit focused on technology and the Internet.

A similar twisting of reality occurred with the very counting and reporting of ballots: The state’s largest counties counted ballots around the clock, reporting them in batches, but conspiracy theorists now point to those reports as signs of fraud, saying there is some suspicious in what they describe as “vote spikes” and “ballot dumps.”

In reality, numbers change as votes are counted, and votes are reported in batches because that is far more efficient than reporting one vote at a time. And those numbers broke strongly for Biden because it was the largest, most Democratic counties that took the longest to report their votes.

As a result, 95% of votes for Trump were counted and reported by 11 p.m. that Wednesday, 27 hours after voting ended. It took another 34 hours before 95% of Biden’s votes were reported, by 9 a.m. that Friday.

In Florida, where mail voting has been a major part of elections for years, state law allows elections officials to open and scan mail ballots starting 22 days before Election Day. Officials in some of the state’s largest counties said that allowed them to count ballots without the kind of intense pressure Pennsylvania was under.

“By the time we got to Election Day, we were caught up with everything that had come to our office,” said Craig Latimer, supervisor of elections for Tampa’s Hillsborough County and head of Florida’s professional association of county elections officials.

Hillsborough County had nearly 338,000 mail ballots total. Philadelphia had nearly 375,000.

Because there was no backlog, Latimer said, on election night the only mail ballots he had left to count were those his office received shortly before polls closed, such as in the final pick-ups from drop boxes.

When polls closed in Hillsborough County, Latimer had only about 3,500 mail ballots left to count.

In Philadelphia, officials had almost 300,000 to go.

“I can’t imagine if I had to wait until Election Day to do that and then the army of people I would need,” Latimer said.

In Broward County, staffers stayed on top of the ballots received every day, with no backlog, and staffing could increase as the daily work grew, said county elections spokesperson Steven Vancore.

“We had plenty of time to prepare and adapt, and the adaption is what’s wonderful,” he said.

Deeley, the chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, said she hopes legislators will change the law to allow counties to count ballots before Election Day.

“All of us should want it to be the most efficient, most effective process available, and the pre-canvass is just a common sense solution,” she said. “It gives people extra confidence in the process. ... It should never be partisan bickering, it should be looked at through a commonsense lens. And really, it should be a no-brainer.”

By Jonathan Lai The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

(Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.)

(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer