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Pennsylvania’s pandemic presidential election is here. Is the state ready?

Pennsylvania has never seen an election like this. But Election Day is here. And nobody is quite sure what to expect.

Voters wait in line outside the Bucks County government building Monday in Doylestown. Some said they received word that their mail ballots had problems and needed to be fixed in order to be counted.
Voters wait in line outside the Bucks County government building Monday in Doylestown. Some said they received word that their mail ballots had problems and needed to be fixed in order to be counted.Read moreMike Catalini / AP

Pennsylvania has never seen an election like this.

But after two-and-a-half years preparing all-new voting machines, a year building a hugely expanded vote-by-mail system, eight months responding to a pandemic, and increasingly pitched fights against false attacks on the legitimacy of the election by the president of the United States among others, it’s finally here.

Election Day.

Nobody is quite sure what to expect Tuesday. Some voters will begin lining up before the sun rises at 6:33 a.m., as they always do. Pennsylvania polls open at 7 a.m.

“I’m expecting that it’ll be like what we’re normally seeing on Election Day: The first hour, hour and a half, is usually chaos," said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, who run elections. “There’s always that one polling place where the janitor sleeps late, there’s always those regular issues that we deal with.”

It’s what happens after that initial, very normal chaos that nobody’s quite sure about.

“I’m anticipating the phones ringing off the hook and people very unsure about what’s going on,” said Bucks County commissioner Bob Harvie, chair of the elections board.

Will new machines break down, slow down, or confuse some voters? Will there be long lines, especially as worried voters who requested mail ballots decide to show up in person instead? Will there be fights over face masks and social distancing? Will there be confrontations or even violence at the polls to cap a historically bitter and divisive election?

And then there’s the counting, which could take longer than it has in any presidential election in modern memory because of the flood of mail ballots. Will a candidate falsely declare victory long before the real outcome is known? Will litigation slow the counting of votes, or stop it altogether?

Will the public accept the results?

The answers will come as votes are cast, as they start being tallied Tuesday, and as the counting across Pennsylvania continues, potentially for days.

So on Monday, an Election Eve like no other, Pennsylvania’s elections officials did what they’ve been doing for months and years: They planned. They prepared. They braced themselves.

“Just getting final things ticked off, finalizing the people who are going to be working in our phone center, answering questions from voters," said Michael Pipe, chair of the Centre County commissioners. “Final touches.”

» READ MORE: What we will and won’t know on election night in Pennsylvania

In Philadelphia, the commissioners moved a polling place after an electrical fire in a high-rise apartment building. In Bucks County, staffers replaced flawed ballots for voters who showed up at the county courthouse. In Lebanon County, the last poll workers picked up their supplies, and voters requested replacement ballots.

This was supposed to be a year elections administrators were mostly focused on the implementation of new voting machines with voter-verifiable paper trails that can be audited and manually recounted, a significant security upgrade for a state where most votes were stored in electronic memory without real backup.

Now that’s just one challenge among many. After the legislature late last year enacted the most substantial election reform since the state’s Election Code was first written in 1937, any voter can vote by mail, without needing an excuse. Lawmakers and officials assumed voters would warm up to that option slowly, like they have in other states.

Then the pandemic hit, fueling a massive surge in demand for mail ballots this year. In a state where prior to this year about 5% of voters cast ballots by mail, more than three million, or a third of the electorate, requested ballots for the general election.

The pandemic has worsened the already-challenging task of running this election. Space alone has been a problem, with officials needing to find more room for workers who are normally crammed into small offices.

As the number of mail ballots increased, so did the logistical challenge. Counties struggled to quickly process ballot applications, especially as outside groups’ mailers confused voters and helped drive a huge number of duplicate requests. Voters flooded phone lines, email inboxes, and county offices, overwhelming the staff even as officials hired more.

» READ MORE: How we’re reporting election results data

For the first time, counties set up satellite elections offices, pop-up sites for a new form of “early voting” using mail ballots, where voters could request, receive, fill out, and submit their mail ballots on the spot. They fought litigation from all sides, over mail ballot drop boxes, polling places, signature matching, ballot deadlines, and more.

Even now a case brought by the state Republican Party remains before the U.S. Supreme Court, as the GOP seeks to reverse the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision that mail ballots can be received until 5 p.m. Friday (instead of 8 p.m. Tuesday). Ballots arriving under that new deadline will be kept and counted separately from earlier ballots. It remains possible that ballots cast in good faith by voters operating under the state court’s deadline could be thrown out after the polls close.

The counting of mail ballots has been a major point of contention — and anxiety.

They take longer to count than in-person votes, which machines tally and summarize at the end of the night. The days-long process of counting mail ballots can’t begin until 7 a.m. Tuesday by law.

A handful of counties won’t even begin opening or counting ballots until Wednesday, citing the need to focus on the in-person election and ensure things run smoothly.

But Trump has spent months falsely attacking mail ballots as susceptible to widespread fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary, and it’s driven a deep partisan divide in which Democrats are much more likely to vote by mail than Republicans. The widely expected result is that Tuesday night’s early returns will skew strongly in Trump’s favor, followed by what’s known as a “blue shift” toward Biden as mail ballots are counted.

» READ MORE: The election is here. Here’s some critical information to make voting on Election Day easier.

Trump’s campaign has said the winner should be based on the tally on Tuesday night — a standard with no grounding in law or history that would effectively disqualify millions of legitimate votes.

Even before that, the ability to quickly count votes has been a top priority for elections officials since the June primary, which was a wake-up call. While votes were cast fairly smoothly then, the counting took much longer than hoped. A week after the primary, about half of Pennsylvania counties were still tallying votes.

Counties rushed to buy millions of dollars of equipment, expand their staffing, and prepare to count ballots around the clock beginning Tuesday.

“Bucks County being a swing county in a swing state, in a presidential election, the stakes are very, very high,” said Harvie, the Bucks County commissioner.

It’s a level of pressure that has pushed elections officials across the state to reconsider their careers. Many have quit in the last year.

“It’s not worth the stress that you put yourself and your body through. If every election was like this, I would not have this job,” said Michael Anderson, the Lebanon County elections director. “It’s just too much. Too many hours, too many people that want to be mad at you for stuff you can’t control.”

» READ MORE: Pa. Democrats enter the homestretch fearing the Supreme Court will throw out votes

After the primary, Anderson said, his anxiety reached the point where he was unable to stop thinking about the election, lying awake at night worried. His doctor prescribed medication to help.

“Your brain is constantly running, especially at night. I’d wake up and think about, ‘I have to do this, I have to do that,’ and just the anxiety of it all,” Anderson said.

For now, like his colleagues across the state, he’s preparing. Preparing to open polling places Tuesday. Preparing to count every vote.

Whatever comes next, they’ll be ready for, said Deeley, Philadelphia’s elections chief. The city has been a favorite target of Trump — “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he said on the debate stage — and officials have been readying plans for any unrest or violence that could break out.

Deeley’s particularly concerned about the disinformation seen throughout the election.

“I just don’t understand. I mean, bad-faith actors are just attempting to undermine the confidence in voting,” Deeley said. But, she said, voters should have faith: “Rest assured, every person in Philadelphia, whether they’re voting by mail, whether they’re voting in person, if their vote is cast properly, it will be counted fairly and properly.”