Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Philadelphia have reported record highs in new COVID-19 cases this past week, and due to the increased spread, Philly officials are considering new restrictions. They could be announced as soon as Monday.

And this week, I chatted with data and democracy reporter Jonathan Lai, who covers voting rights and elections in Pennsylvania. Today, he breaks down what you need to know about Pennsylvania’s election as the last votes are counted.

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Behind the story with Jonathan Lai

Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with democracy and data reporter Jonathan Lai, who covers voting rights and elections in Pennsylvania. He breaks down what you need to know about this year’s election in Pennsylvania.

What do you think is the biggest takeaway from Pennsylvania’s election? What’s the one thing people should know?

I’ll give you three, because there are three big points I want people to understand.

The first is the election ran fairly smoothly. Despite all the challenges, Pennsylvania held an election in which there were no major problems.

Second, there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud or any sort of election rigging. President Trump’s reelection campaign, in its many legal challenges, has not actually claimed fraud nor provided evidence of it.

The last is the takeaway I hope we keep in mind as we look to the future: Yes, it took time to call a winner for president, and yes, the numbers shifted a lot as votes were counted, but those things were entirely predictable and were the direct outcome of how our electoral system is set up.

For example, we knew it would take a long time to count mail ballots, and that it could lead to a days-long wait to be able to call the presidential race. We knew it in January, and we knew it would happen in the primary — but that most people wouldn’t realize it.

We also knew that there would be a “blue shift” in which Trump has a strong “lead” in the partial vote count on Election Day that is slowly eroded as mail ballots are counted over the hours and days following. That’s because mail ballots take time to count; that process isn’t allowed to begin until Election Day under state law; and Democrats voted by mail at much higher rates, given months of Trump’s false attacks on mail ballots. We knew that could mean Trump looks like he is winning on Election Day but Biden would catch up and could win in the end. We reported in January about the blue shift.

That means we should not be freaked out about it taking a while to count votes, or by seeing a strong blue shift in those votes over time. It also means policymakers can change the system if they don’t want to see that play out again, such as by allowing elections officials to process mail ballots earlier. Of course, if they are okay with it, that’s a policy decision they can make. But it’s not some mistake or surprising phenomenon.

Do we have a final vote tally yet for Pennsylvania and when do you think we can expect it?

Not yet. Counting votes really does take time, especially because it’s time-consuming to handle the final batches of ballots that have various issues or need to be dealt with in some way. That’s because elections officials have to very carefully verify votes and count them, and getting a complete and accurate count takes time. Pennsylvania’s deadline for certifying election results is 20 days after Election Day, so that’ll be Monday of Thanksgiving week.

Is there anything still to be worried about for Pennsylvania’s election?

For this particular election, I think we need to be worried about whether people accept the results. We’re seeing large swaths of the population question the legitimacy of the election and its results, and that has real long-term implications.

How did election week go for you? What was your daily routine like? Did you feel the election week stress?

It was fun and wild and busy. I live in Kensington but spent most of the week in or near our newsroom in Center City. Nobody else was there (we’ve been working remotely since March because of the pandemic). But I needed access to both my computer setup and also the Convention Center where Philadelphia officials are counting mail ballots and were holding press conferences. Since I’m both our voting rights/elections reporter and a data journalist, I saw my job as focusing on three main areas: Stay on top of news, monitor election results as they come in to be able to identify stories for myself and others, and explain things to make the election more accessible to people. So I was juggling all that, but we also just have really great people here, and I never felt like I was in over my head or anything.

When the vote counting is all done, what are you looking toward on your beat in the near future?

Well, there’s always another election around the corner. But I’m particularly interested in seeing what lessons we draw from this year’s elections and what further changes to the electoral system will result.

And let’s be real, I’m also looking forward to at least a little more calm on the beat. That might not be the near future, though. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Email Jonathan Lai at jlai@inquirer.com and follow him on Twitter at @Elaijuh.

Through Your Eyes | #OurPhilly

I’d spend a lot of time on a balcony right now if I had one, too. And I love the fall decor here. Thanks for sharing, @jordanparenti!

Tag your Instagram posts or tweets with #OurPhilly and we’ll pick our favorite each day to feature in this newsletter and give you a shout-out!

How to get ready for Thanksgiving during a pandemic

The holidays are coming, and this year will be different given the pandemic. COVID-19 cases across the country are rising again, and Pennsylvania and Philadelphia set new records for new infections. Preventing further spread is especially important, but you can still celebrate the holiday. Here’s four ways to do Thanksgiving this year, from a virtual gathering to dining outside.

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Comment of the week

“Thank you for this. And I hope some of your readers who do not regularly shop at Reading Terminal will do so this year if possible.” — pcmancini, on A walk through Reading Terminal Market brings the longing for Thanksgiving with family by Craig LaBan.

Your Daily Dose of | Christmas cheer

The Rothman Orthopaedics Ice Rink opened at Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall on Nov. 13, 2020. A couple walks through the Wintergarden by the skating rink.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The Rothman Orthopaedics Ice Rink opened at Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall on Nov. 13, 2020. A couple walks through the Wintergarden by the skating rink.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Philly. The annual holiday display at City Hall was set up on Friday. The holiday tree is there as well as an ice skating rink.