Get ready for a long wait.
Pennsylvania held its primary election Tuesday, but only a fraction of the votes had been tallied Tuesday night. It will take days to count them all. So it could be a while before you know if your candidate won.
That’s not because of fraud, or election rigging, or anything of the sort. It’s the direct result of legal changes designed to make voting more flexible and accessible, along with a coronavirus pandemic that greatly accelerated the adoption of voting by mail.
It’s also a huge change for voters who have grown accustomed to winners being “called” by news outlets on election night, with displays of concession speeches and victory parties from candidates. And while a lack of actual election results won’t bother many voters with so few competitive races on the ballot attracting wide interest, imagine the same lack of certainty the night of Nov. 3: If changes aren’t made between now and then, elections officials across the state say, the world could be left watching Pennsylvania, a critical swing state, count ballot after ballot long after polls have closed.
“It’s pretty wild, isn’t it?" said Delaware County Councilmember Christine Reuther, who works on election issues. “People are going to have to wait for results. … It’s not going to be as satisfying for a lot of people. Let’s just leave it at that.”
Tuesday’s primary was the first election in which any Pennsylvania voter could vote by mail, and coronavirus fears helped fuel an unexpected surge in mail ballot requests. More than 1.8 million voters requested mail ballots — almost 17 times the 107,000 requests in the 2016 primary — and several counties planned on having only a small share of those ballots tallied Tuesday night.
The Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner of the state’s Democratic primary shortly after polls closed, a formality after his last remaining rival, Bernie Sanders, dropped out of the contest, while President Donald Trump easily won the Republican primary. But there weren’t sufficient returns late Tuesday to determine a winner in a competitive Democratic primary for state auditor general, nor in a smattering of primaries for congressional and state legislative seats.
Most votes in the Philadelphia region, where one in three registered Pennsylvania voters live, weren’t being counted Tuesday night.
Philadelphia won’t even begin counting its mail ballots until Wednesday, and officials expected them to make up a majority of votes cast in the city. Bucks County planned to have about 20% of mail ballots and 20% of in-person votes counted by the end of the night. Chester County could take an estimated three days to count all its votes. Delaware County won’t have all its in-person votes counted until Thursday, and mail ballot results won’t come until after that. Montgomery County will count the vast majority of its votes in the days ahead.
Together, they make up five of the six highest-population counties in Pennsylvania.
Elections officials fear that the lack of high-profile competitive races Tuesday could obscure the reality that votes simply take longer to count now that the electoral system has changed.
Part of the change comes from adapting to new technology.
Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018 ordered all 67 counties to replace their voting machines with more secure systems that leave a paper trail that can be audited and manually recounted. Results from polling places are still tracked as they are cast, making it fairly straightforward to pull vote summaries at the end of the night, but counties struggled to pull off Tuesday’s election amid a pandemic.
So Delaware County, instead of scanning paper ballots at polling places, was counting them at county offices after polls closed. Few of the polling place results that are normally available on election night were counted Tuesday night, and the full count of in-person votes will last through Thursday, Reuther said.
And seven counties — including Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, and Allegheny — had extended deadlines for mail ballots to arrive and still be counted: Wolf ordered ballots be counted if they were postmarked by Tuesday, even if they arrive after the Tuesday night deadline set by state law. (The order applies to six counties. A judge on Tuesday granted Bucks County a separate extension.)
That means county elections officials didn’t even know at the end of the night how many ballots are still coming in the days ahead.
The larger change, though, is one that will outlast the pandemic: Voters have options now.
Until Tuesday’s elections, Pennsylvania’s absentee system was so restrictive that only about 5% of votes in any election were cast by mail. That meant when in-person results came in from polling places on election night, they made up the vast majority of the votes.
After the law was changed last year to allow any voter to use mail ballots, county elections officials began to warn that results would take time to process. In some states with high rates of voting by mail, results can take days or even weeks to process.
And that was even before the pandemic blew expectations out of the water.
Months ago, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose office oversees elections, said she expected mail ballots to make up 20% to 25% of votes in the primary. Last week, she said she believed most votes would be cast by mail.
The pandemic, and the change to the law, also make it more difficult for news outlets to use the sophisticated statistical models they normally rely on to project winners based on unofficial election night returns and to “call” winners of races.
But public expectations have been set by years of election night projections, and elections officials and experts worry that voters may jump to conclusions based on partial results — and then be surprised or even distrustful of the final numbers.
Early returns, especially when they represent just a few of the total votes cast, may not align with the final totals. In some cases, the candidate who appears to be winning on election night may ultimately lose.
“We will take confidence over speed any time, so we’re going to have to reset our expectations on how long it takes to get results,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board. “But we’ll have confidence in them once we have them.”
There are still changes that can be made to quicken the reporting of results, with some county elections officials calling for mail ballots to be opened days or even weeks ahead of election day. State law currently forbids counties from opening ballots until 7 a.m. on election day.
Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, chair of the Bucks County commissioners, is among those who hope the state legislature will change the law and allow counties to begin counting mail ballots earlier.
If not, she said, everyone will just have to strap in for November. Don’t expect too much on election night.
“Everybody take a deep breath,” she said. “We’re going to have to get used to one hour at a time for a while.”