You won’t have to wait until Saturday to find out who won this time.
Just six months after the world waited days for Philadelphia mail ballots to be counted to know who won the White House, elections officials across Pennsylvania said Tuesday’s primary will look more like what voters are used to seeing in years past.
There’s a good chance we’ll know the winner of Philadelphia’s district attorney race by early Wednesday morning — unless the race is so close that it hinges on mail ballots that arrived in the last few days and hours before polls close at 8 p.m. But the ballots elections workers began processing at 7 a.m. Tuesday should be counted by the end of the night, meaning the results would be published around the same time as in-person votes are tallied.
Officials in other counties also said mail ballots were counted within hours, not days.
Lebanon County finished counting its mail ballots by 2:30 p.m. Half-an-hour later, Montgomery County had its 52,000 ballots counted, leaving only ballots received Tuesday to be tallied.
It was a far cry from last November.
But that doesn’t mean the election administration headaches revealed last year have been fixed. The quick count Tuesday was, in some ways, a smokescreen: Some of the improvement comes from lessons learned last year, but the real difference is that Tuesday’s primary is a low-interest, low-turnout election. There are just many fewer votes to count.
“It will look like we’ve figured it all out, but it’s just the fact that this will be the lowest turnout of the eight [elections] in the four-year cycle,” said Steve Ulrich, elections director in York County. “Our next real test may not come until November .”
That election will include open seats for governor and U.S. Senate, which will help determine control of Congress — and bring out huge numbers of voters.
Elections officials have long been urging state legislators to change the law so they can deliver results sooner after polls close. Lawmakers have held hearings in the state House and Senate with Republicans, who control both chambers, planning to introduce legislation in the next few weeks.
One change elections officials agree on: Allowing mail ballots to be at least processed, if not counted, before Election Day — a process known as pre-canvassing. By allowing counting to begin earlier, officials would be more likely to finish on election night.
“It’s a stroke of a pen. It doesn’t cost anything, and it’s just common-sense legislation,” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, the office that runs elections.
Without pre-canvassing before Election Day, counties aren’t allowed to even open ballots until 7 a.m. on election day. That’s when workers begin processing ballots, including opening envelopes, checking that ballots and envelopes are properly filled out, and running ballots through high-speed scanners.
That process didn’t take all day Tuesday in many counties because of the relatively low volume of votes, officials said. Many were done by 8 p.m.
“Because the volume is so much lower, everything can just start up a little faster, the next steps in the process will just be initiated way sooner,” said Karen Barsoum, elections director in Chester County, which finished counting its main batch of ballots by 6:30 p.m.
That doesn’t mean all the votes were counted Tuesday night. In Chester County and elsewhere, ballots that arrived on or close to election day won’t be counted until Wednesday, if not later. In Philadelphia, elections officials were counting the 40,000 mail ballots that were received through last Wednesday. Another 16,300 ballots had been returned as of Tuesday morning, according to state data, with more were likely to come in throughout the day.
And demonstrating the impact of the low volume of mail ballots, city elections officials ran into an equipment snafu Tuesday that slowed the count — but that was only likely to delay results by a few hours, making it more of an inconvenience than a disaster.
Elections workers were unable to use the extractors that quickly slice open envelopes, so officials scrambled to buy letter openers from retail office supply stores and assign workers to open envelopes by hand. In a high-turnout election, that kind of slow-down could prove huge. On Tuesday, it meant that instead of having results of 40,000 ballots counted by 8 p.m., they would have 10,000 at that time, and another 20,000 to 25,000 posted about four hours later. Other ballots were either rejected, such as for not having signatures or secrecy envelopes, or were damaged by the machines and will need to be hand-counted later.
That means a majority of mail ballots will likely still be counted by the end of the night, but a very close DA’s race could drag out longer than that, given that there could be 20,000 more Democratic votes to be counted Wednesday or even Thursday.
The Pennsylvania law allowing any voter to vote by mail, replacing the previously more restrictive absentee system, only took effect last year, making this just the third election — and the first non-presidential one — under the new system. Without the attention and resources of a presidential election, and with pandemic restrictions lifting, the results from Tuesday’s primary will provide a better sense of what a new “normal” election might look like.
For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended the mail ballot deadline last year. This year, without that grace period, how many ballots will be ensnared by the state’s tight mail ballot deadlines and rejected for arriving after Tuesday night? How many “naked ballots” will be rejected because they were returned without their inner secrecy envelope, now that there’s no massive voter education campaign? And will counties be able to recruit enough poll workers moving forward, or will ongoing poll worker shortages cause issues the way they did Tuesday morning in Philadelphia, when some locations opened late?
Officials are ready to learn from this election and adapt, they said. They’ve made a number of changes in the last few months, including adjusting the physical layout of their facilities to better accommodate the counting. Counties have also increased staff and adjusted the election day deployment of workers.
Bucks County expanded its elections office space, said Bob Harvie, the county commissioner who chairs the elections board. The county will also be able to better use the envelope opener machines they had last year but were only able to use for a few hours before realizing they kept clogging.
Montgomery County has increased its permanent staff size to reduce its reliance on seasonal staffing, because of how much work there is and how specialized it is now, said Lee Soltysiak, the county’s chief operating officer and clerk of its elections board.
Elections officials plan to keep learning from experience, but they’re worried the combination of changes already made and low turnout will mask underlying problems.
“That’s one of the downsides of this low turnout,” Deeley said. “People can look at it and say, ‘See, they got it done, it’s not that bad.’ And that’s just not at all the case. It will get done, it always gets done... but we still have all the same issues.”