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Elections officials will count Pennsylvania mail ballots around the clock until they’re done

Everybody’s going to want to know who won the White House, and nobody wants to be the reason the world is waiting to find out.

A Bucks County elections official processes mail ballots for the June 2 primary election.
A Bucks County elections official processes mail ballots for the June 2 primary election.Read moreMatt Slocum / AP

Everybody’s going to want to know who won the White House, and nobody wants to be the reason the world is waiting to find out.

So elections officials in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties have an aggressive but simple new plan for reducing the time it will take to count a deluge of mail ballots: Once they start counting on Election Day, they won’t stop.

“We’re planning on running 24 hours a day,” said Bob Harvie, the Bucks County commissioner who chairs the elections board. “Once we start opening ballots, we’re going to have different shifts where we’re never going to close the doors of the Board of Elections.”

That’s a significant departure from the past, when counties would process votes late into the night but eventually send everyone home, continuing to count ballots as part of lengthy work days following an election. This year, those work days won’t end.

The counting won’t stop either in Philadelphia, nor in Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. Together, the five Southeastern Pennsylvania counties have more than one-third of Pennsylvania’s registered voters. They will have to count hundreds of thousands — perhaps more than a million — mail ballots.

That takes time, and Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow officials to start counting until polls open on Nov. 3. That means it could take days to call a winner in Pennsylvania, a state increasingly expected to play a decisive role in determining who wins the presidency.

Complicating things further, the state Supreme Court on Thursday extended the mail ballot deadline to allow ballots to be counted if they are received up to three days after Election Day. That increases the chances that thousands more mail ballots will need to be counted after polls close. It could be difficult to know even how many votes are still uncounted.

And if the world goes days without knowing who won, mis- and disinformation could fill the void, damaging public trust in the election and undermining its legitimacy.

No pressure.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s nightmare 2020 voting scenario — and how to prevent it

“It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t have confidence in the results, it just means they have to have patience for the results,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its elections board. “That’s the frustrating thing — not so much that it’s taking longer… it’s the wringing of the hands and the skepticism that it can lead to.”

This is the first year any Pennsylvania voter can vote by mail under a law passed last year, and it’s been clear for a while that counting those ballots could lead to long waits to call races. And Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, especially after months of false attacks on the method by President Donald Trump. That means there will likely be what’s known as a “blue shift” in the days after Election Day — the Republican-leaning in-person votes are counted first, making it seem like Trump is winning handily until the disproportionately Democratic mail ballots are slowly counted.

Most votes in the Philadelphia region weren’t counted the night of the June 2 primary election. A week later, about half of Pennsylvania counties were still tallying votes.

“We’d like to be done... by the end of the week,” Harvie said of counting ballots in November. “I know that’s ambitious, but we’re going to do everything we can to make it happen.”

The primary was a wake up call, elections officials said. They knew counting ballots would take time, but they’re determined to avoid such a prolonged process in November. Not given the stakes, and with turnout expected be double what it was in the primary.

“One of the lessons learned we had was: If we threw more people at the problem, we could do this faster,” said Chester County administrator Bobby Kagel. The county on Thursday put out a call to government workers to help count ballots the week of the election, with about 200 people a day working across three eight-hour shifts.

» READ MORE: 5 questions that will help decide the presidential race in Pennsylvania

The around-the-clock staffing will help prevent bottlenecks as ballots move through the counting process. In Philadelphia, for example, about three times as many ballots can be scanned every hour as can be removed from their envelopes and prepared for scanning. So while the actual counting of ballots may occur in batches a few times a day, the tedious work of opening envelope after envelope — about 12,000 an hour — will continue without stoppage.

And in another first, Philadelphia elections officials plan to begin counting ballots on Election Day. In the past, they didn’t open mail ballots until after, focusing their staff on running the in-person election.

“We’re just changing with the times that have changed around us,” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, who run elections. “We’re going to do the best we can to get that count accurately and as quickly as possible, and I think that we’re going to be in a good place to get it all done.”