ballot counting Wednesday

County workers and volunteers count mail-in ballots for the second day inside the Lancaster County Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.

You might have wondered: What’s happened in Pennsylvania over the past few days? 

The time it has taken elections workers to count all the votes in the Nov. 3 election, and the large number of electoral votes at stake in a presidential race whose outcome rests on them, thrust the state into a somewhat uncomfortable limelight.  

So you may have asked in recent days, “Are we doing this right?” 

The answers to your questions are: Yes. Pennsylvania has been counting ballots in accordance with the law. And it’s gone relatively smoothly. 

It’s as simple as that. 

Lancaster County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, a Republican, had this to say on Wednesday morning, after elections workers had completed processing the largest batch of mail-in ballots: “Thanks to the amazing and extremely thankful efforts of our Elections staff, and over 150 volunteers of other County staff and community volunteers, all of approximately the 91,000 mail ballots received by Tuesday were processed and reported out by around 7:30 p.m. last night.” 

The count continued through the week and into the weekend in other parts of the state, particularly Philadelphia, which received four times the number of mail-in ballots. 

So why didn’t it take this long to count the votes in previous elections? 

There’s never been as many people voting by mail, a process made easier by a 2019 law passed by the Republican General Assembly and signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. The law allows voters to cast ballots by mail without providing an excuse such as illness or travel. This was the first general election in which every state voter was entitled to vote by mail.  

More than 90 million U.S. citizens, many concerned about falling ill amid the COVID-19 pandemic, requested mailed ballots. Of those, 65 million had returned them by Election Day, according to the U.S. Election Project early-vote tracker. In Pennsylvania alone, more than 3 million voters request mail ballots and 2.5 million returned them. 

It takes a long time to open all of those envelopes, unfold the ballots, scan them and report the results to the Department of State beginning on Election Day. 

Wait. They only started counting on Election Day? Why didn’t elections officials start counting those mail ballots as soon as they were returned? 

While the 2019 law made it easier to vote by mail, it did not provide elections workers any more time to count them. Under state law, elections officials are not allowed to process mail-in ballots until Election Day. 

The Republican-led General Assembly failed to pass legislation allowing counties to begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day like many other states do. That meant mail-in ballots piled up at election offices without being opened or loaded into counting machines. 

Though Lancaster County began counting the mail-in ballots on Election Day, other counties waited until the following day. Counties have eight days after the election to count those ballots. 

Meantime, states like Florida – the site of the 2000 election debacle – are done counting already. 

Why are mail-in ballots received after Election Day being counted at all? Isn’t that illegal? 

No, it’s not illegal.  

The state Supreme Court ruled in September that ballots mailed before the end of Election Day could be received up to three days later and still be counted. The U.S. Supreme Court examined the case and did not stand in the way of the three-day timeframe. It may review the matter again later. 

A number of other states have also made accommodations for the crush of mailed ballots amid the pandemic. 

Why is the vote count taking so long in Philadelphia?  

Because of the sheer volume of mail-in ballots. The city received more than 350,000 mail-in ballots by Election Day. More arrived later in the week. 

To accommodate the crush of mail-in ballots, the city used turned its convention center into a “vote-counting factory,” as NPR described the operation.  

“One machine sorts returned ballots in hours, instead of days if done manually. Another machine cuts open envelopes and spreads them apart with suction cups so workers can quickly pull out the ballots. And there are 12 high-speed scanners that process 32,000 ballots an hour,” the network reported. 

Nonetheless, it’s a slow and meticulous process. 

Don’t mail ballots make it easier to commit fraud? 

There is no evidence of that. Mail ballots have been in use in Pennsylvania and many other states, without issue, for decades. County elections works check each application with the voter rolls to determine whether the applicant is eligible to vote. They then mail ballots and envelopes that hold barcodes that match their applications. 

“The 2D bar codes, also known as QR codes, on our ballots and return envelopes are to allow the vendor’s automated quality control process to ensure that the correct ballot is being mailed to the correct voter,” according to the Lancaster County elections office.  

Upon return of the mail-in ballot, elections workers store them in a secure location until they’re able to begin counting.  

Why didn’t the courts order the counting to stop on Election Day as the president demanded?  

The state Supreme Court’s September ruling requires counties to count all mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, as long as they were returned before 5 p.m. on Friday. Counties are also required to count provisional ballots – those cast at polling places on Election Day but held for review until later. 

There is no legal justification for halting the count of votes that are cast legally. In expectation that ballots arriving after Election Day could be challenged in court, the Department of State ordered counties to tally those votes separately so they can be easily subtracted from candidate totals if necessary. 

Who watches the vote count in Pennsylvania? 

Pennsylvania’s election code allows candidates and members of the two major political parties to observe the ballot count. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, writing on Twitter, stated: “Observers have been allowed to view the counting of all ballots, at all time(s), in PA ballot counting location(s) in PA. Period.” 

In Lancaster County, elections officials permitted journalists to observe the process through the week. LNP | LancasterOnline reporters and photographers observed Tuesday as 150 volunteers spread out across a large room at the Lancaster County Convention Center opened nearly 72,000 mail ballots.   

In the first half of Tuesday, a constant drone of paper slicing could be heard in the convention center, as staff shuffled between opening envelopes at tables and waiting in line to use machines to open the secrecy envelopes.  

Philadelphia broadcast its vote count live so all citizens could observe. 


What evidence of voter fraud exists in Pennsylvania? 

Very little. 

An Allegheny County mail carrier was discovered throwing away mail and charged with delay or destruction of mail by a postal employee. One application for a mail-in ballot was found among the mail he threw away, according to the Department of State.  

Voter fraud in general is “just vanishingly rare,” according to experts like Adam Lawrence, professor and acting chair for Government and Political Affairs at Millersville University. “It just doesn’t happen with near anywhere the regularity that some say it does.” 

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar said there’s been only one other case, in Luzerne County. In that instance, according to The Times Leader newspaper, a Republican voter was charged with forging the name of his deceased mother on an application for an absentee ballot in September. 

Speaking at a news conference last month, Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons, a Republican, and U.S. Attorney William McSwain, a Trump appointee, said they knew of no recent incidents of election fraud occurring here. 



Tom Murse is the executive editor of LNP | LancasterOnline. He can be reached at or (717) 481-6021.