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Candidates across Pa. have no idea if they won or lost their primary elections: ‘It sucks’

What happens when candidates dash to the finish line — and then spend days wondering who won? Welcome to Pennsylvania in 2020.

Voters line up outside Lingelbach Elementary School in Philadelphia's Germantown section on June 2, 2020. There were fewer polling locations across the city due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Voters line up outside Lingelbach Elementary School in Philadelphia's Germantown section on June 2, 2020. There were fewer polling locations across the city due to the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Campaigning for public office is a months-long marathon culminating in a sprint to election day. It can be exhausting. But there is a finish line.

Except when there isn’t. What happens when candidates dash to the finish — and then spend days wondering who won?

That’s the reality confronting candidates and their supporters across Pennsylvania this week. A new election law allowing anyone to vote by mail, coupled with coronavirus fears of voting in person, led to a surge in mail ballots in Tuesday’s primary. That has greatly slowed the counting of votes, delaying the results.

In Philadelphia, more than 300,000 ballots were cast, roughly half of them at polling places and the rest by mail. Officials didn’t start counting the mail ballots until Wednesday. It wasn’t clear Thursday when they’ll be done.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania held an election. We won’t know the results for days. Here’s what that means for November.

“It sucks,” said Rick Krajewski, a Democratic state House candidate in West Philadelphia who had a narrow lead Wednesday over longtime incumbent Rep. James Roebuck Jr. — with not even half the votes counted.“You work on this long, intense thing for a whole year, and then you have this results system that doesn’t feel like closure.”

And more ballots were still coming in Thursday to Philadelphia election offices, after the deadline for their arrival was extended to next Tuesday in seven counties, including the city.

Al Schmidt, one of the three Philadelphia city commissioners who oversee elections, said those ballots are separated and will be counted after the rest are, along with provisional ballots cast at polling places on Tuesday. The Board of Elections, working with the good-government group Committee of Seventy, set up a livestream for people to watch the counting.

While voters and candidates in states that have had widespread mail voting for years are accustomed to results rolling in days or even weeks later, Pennsylvania is new to the waiting game. More than 1.8 million Pennsylvanians requested mail ballots for Tuesday’s primary. The number cast in some areas dwarfed those who voted in person.

That’s led people like Krajewski to email supporters celebrating that he won “the in-person vote" — which means nothing if mail ballots shift his fate. Several thousand remain to be counted in his race against Roebuck.

“We’re stuck in this kinda-good position that’s still uncertain," Krajewski said. "I’ve been talking to friends and family and supporters who are like, ‘Congratulations?’ So it’s weird feeling like I can’t fully exhale.”

In Philadelphia’s 1st Senate District, the Associated Press declared progressive challenger Nikil Saval the winner over longtime incumbent Larry Farnese. But neither has claimed victory nor conceded with mail ballots left to count.

“The waiting is difficult," said Mark Nevins, a Democratic political consultant who worked with Farnese, state auditor general candidate Nina Ahmad, and Amanda Cappelletti, who is challenging State Sen. Daylin Leach. The latter two races were still in limbo Thursday. Cappelletti had a sizable lead over Leach in one of the state’s most closely watched Democratic primaries — but many mail ballots hadn’t been counted in the district, which covers parts of Montgomery and Delaware Counties.

“We’re just sitting and waiting, running through 100 different scenarios, some good, some bad,” Nevins said. "It’s hard to be patient, but that’s precisely what’s needed.”

Statewide, 16 competitive legislative primaries had winners declared as of Thursday. More than 20 were still pending. At least one race in Philadelphia shifted in 24 hours after some mail ballots were counted, as State Rep. Brian Sims now leads his Democratic primary challenger after trailing on Wednesday.

State Rep. Mary Isaacson, another Philadelphia Democrat, saw her lead grow from 100 votes Tuesday to 400 votes Wednesday. Vanessa McGrath, one of Isaacson’s three challengers, trailed by about 155 votes Wednesday. McGrath said her campaign is still waiting on results of about 10,000 mail ballots. Still, she was getting condolences from people who assumed the results were final.

“I’ve been inundated with ‘sorry you lost’ messages,” McGrath said.

In the statewide Democratic primary for auditor general, Pittsburgh controller Michael Lamb and Ahmad, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor, were leading the pack. Ahmad said she’s waiting on mail ballots to be counted — especially in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

At the Philadelphia Board of Elections office on Spring Garden Street, elections officials sifted through stacks of mail ballots, including several boxes filled to the brim that came in the day after the election.

Mail ballots take much longer to count than in-person votes. Physical voting machines keep track of votes as they are cast and spit out a summary at the end of the night. But mail ballots require opening two different envelopes and then scanning the paper ballots inside. And some ballots need to be counted by hand, because of voter error or problems with scanners.

In Bucks County, where workers estimated they will complete their count late Friday or early Saturday, Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo worried about how a similar wait for results would play out in the presidential race in November.

“We’re used to getting election results on the day of the election and knowing who the winners and the losers are,” DiGirolamo, a Republican, said during a news conference Thursday. “And this is not a problem that’s unique to Bucks County.”

He said he hoped to work with state lawmakers to allow ballots that arrive before an election day to be opened and counted sooner to speed up the process.

“We don’t want to be in November waiting until Friday or Saturday or Sunday, waiting to see who the winner of the presidential election is,” he said.

Christine Reuther, a Delaware County councilwoman, said late last month that “it would be unreasonable for people to expect [full] results” from her county before Saturday.

Daniel F. McElhatton, a Democratic political consultant in Philadelphia who worked on his father’s City Council race in 1991 — a race that came down to 17 votes — is no stranger to waiting. It took weeks for the courts to rule on challenges from both sides. But McElhatton said that felt different, since he knew the election was close and there was a defined process.

Given President Donald Trump’s false claims that mail balloting is rife with fraud, McElhatton worried about a presidential election that hangs on votes counted days later.

“This is the terrifying part: If this is what’s going to happen now, in a state Senate race, in terms of uncertainty, what the heck is going to happen in November if there’s this uncertainty and all these people are voting by mail?” McElhatton said. “I can’t imagine you could wait for Pennsylvania to be called in a week or 10 days. ... It plays into the narrative of rigging an election if you can’t get it called quickly enough.”

-Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.