‘Waiting on Pennsylvania’: Why the US Senate race may drag past Election night

David Catanese
McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If Pennsylvania’s tightening U.S. Senate race turns out to be as close as its current trajectory, it’s unlikely the winner will be apparent on the night of Nov. 8.

Election officials have begun warning the public that tabulations in many counties will proceed well into the next day and possibly beyond, due to restrictions workers face in processing mail-in ballots.

“We will not have unofficial results in Pennsylvania on Election Night and that’s a fact,” Leigh Chapman, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of state, told McClatchy in an interview. “We’re expecting at least a few days for results to be final.”

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator, John Fetterman, speaks to supporters at a "Get Out the Vote" rally in Pittsburgh, on Oct. 26, 2022. (Branden Eastwood/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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Polling of the commonwealth’s marquee contest shows Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman’s longstanding lead over Republican celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz has shrunk to just 2 points, meaning the ultimate outcome could be determined by just tens of thousands of votes. In 2020, it took news outlets four days to call the commonwealth for Joe Biden, whose margin over Donald Trump ended up being 81,660 votes.

One-point-three million Pennsylvanians have requested mail-in ballots, which according to law can’t be opened until the morning of Election Day, when officials are simultaneously occupied with running in-person election activity.

“Until we have that pre-canvassing time,” Chapman noted, “the whole country’s going to be waiting on Pennsylvania.”

An adviser to Oz’s campaign agreed that “I don’t think we’ll know on Election Night,” and Democrats concede the narrowing Senate contest will diverge from the governor’s race, where Democrat Josh Shapiro is heavily favored over Republican Doug Mastriano.

“My sense is that John’s still going to win this, but … I think it’s going to be more the kind of race you see in Pennsylvania where nobody wins a statewide race in Pennsylvania big,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pittsburgh Democrat who is retiring after 14 terms. “Josh Shapiro will have a bigger margin.”

Pennsylvania is just one of eight states that doesn’t permit pre-processing of early mail-in ballots. That means county officials have to wait until 7 a.m. on Election Day to begin opening returned ballots, separating them from their secrecy envelopes and flattening and scanning them into the system.

Only after polls close at 8 p.m. can officials begin tallying returns.

In Pennsylvania’s May primary, 704,696 mail-in ballots were returned and the GOP Senate primary came down to a mere 951 votes, triggering an automatic statewide recount and leaving uncertainty about Oz’s victory until June.

As of Wednesday, 686,123 mail-in ballots have been returned for the general election, with 73% of those cast by Democrats. Just 19% of the early vote thus far has come from Republicans, demonstrating the party’s preference to wait until Election Day.

Each county employs a different process, but a significant number choose to total Election Day ballots ahead of mail-in ballots, producing an early advantage for GOP candidates that recedes later. In 2020, this was referred to as “the red mirage.”

“Initial vote tallies may lean Republican, but that may change as votes continue to be counted because Democrats are more likely to vote by mail,” said Rebecca Farmer, a spokeswoman for the Movement Advancement Project, which is also calling election delays a “certainty” in Pennsylvania. “Note that the delay in election result availability doesn’t mean anything unethical is happening — just that time is needed to count the votes accurately and made sure that every vote is counted.”

Doyle said he believes the Republican legislature in Pennsylvania has intentionally refused to change the pre-canvassing law “to create this situation where on Election Night, the numbers may look one way and the next day or two, they look different.”

“And then it causes people to question the results,” he said.

Pennsylvania has also been inundated with election litigation and is dealing with a dozen active lawsuits that could still produce rulings prior to Election Day.

Just last week, the state Supreme Court deadlocked on the question of whether counties can help voters fix errors on their ballots, essentially affirming their ability to do so.

National Republicans also filed a lawsuit arguing that undated mail-in ballots should not be counted, asking the state to at least segregate such undated or incorrectly dated ballots.

Both parties now see Pennsylvania as the linchpin to a Senate majority.

Despite a debate performance in which he consistently struggled with his speech due to a stroke, Fetterman has raised more than $2 million since its conclusion Tuesday night.

Earlier this week, Senate Leadership Fund, the largest Republican super PAC, earmarked another $6 million in television ads to attack Fetterman and lift Oz.