Pa. elections chief urges counties to begin counting mail-in ballots early Tuesday morning

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Pennsylvania’s elections chief pleaded with county leaders Friday to make sure they start counting mail-in ballots the morning of Election Day, rather than waiting until the next day to begin the crucial tally.

“The outcome of Tuesday’s election could well depend on Pennsylvania. It is vitally important that the more than 3 million ballots cast by mail here be counted as soon as possible,” Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a statement. “The country will be looking to Pennsylvania for accurate and timely results.”

Her comments come as President Donald Trump has continued to question the need for votes to be counted after Nov. 3, despite the fact that it’s been commonplace in all presidential elections. This year, in particular, as voters leaned more heavily on mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of vote-counting that continues days or even weeks after Election Day has grown. Pennsylvania has already agreed to segregate any mail-in ballots that arrive after the polls close on Election Day, a nod to lingering legal questions about whether those ballots will be permitted to be counted.

Boockvar’s comments come amid plans by some Pennsylvania counties to postpone counting of any mail-in ballots — whether they arrive before the polls close or after — until late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Pennsylvania law permits counties to begin counting mail-in and absentee votes beginning at 7 a.m. on Election Day but does not require that they do so immediately. Cumberland County, a Republican-leaning area outside of Harrisburg, indicated Wednesday that it would not begin counting mail-in ballots until Wednesday, citing a need to prioritize resources for in-person voting. Several other smaller counties have reportedly indicated they intend to delay counting of mail-in ballots.

The significance of the push-and-pull between the state and counties could have national significance. Both campaigns see Pennsylvania, with its 20 Electoral College votes, as potentially decisive; Trump won the state by just 44,292 votes in 2016, and Scranton native Joe Biden has stumped there extensively.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week determined opted against expediting a Republican challenge to the state’s high court’s decision to permit ballots arriving up to three days after Election Day to be counted, but Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissent, indicated the court may revisit the issue after the election. Newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett sat out that court’s move, but could represent a decisive fifth vote in either direction.

Trump on Friday again raised the notion that the election should “end” on Nov. 3, a continuation of his repeated calls to limit vote counting that might spill days after the election. Every election in modern history has included vote counting that continues days or even weeks, particularly in states with laws that allow overseas or absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted even if they arrive days later. Several states have also loosened deadlines to account for the increase in mail-in ballots because of the pandemic.

Boockvar said about 73 percent of the 3 million mail-in ballots requested by Pennsylvania voters have been returned.

In recent days, Democrats have urged their voters to avoid sending their ballots by mail across the country, amid hints from the Supreme Court that some states might be ordered to cut off the counting of ballots that arrive after Election Day.

Zach Montellaro contributed.

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