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Some Pennsylvania counties will count mail-in ballots last

Posted October 28, 2020 6:04 a.m. EDT

— Pennsylvania's counties have starkly different plans for when they will begin processing their pre-Election Day ballots, with Democratic strongholds moving to get them counted as quickly as possible while other areas plan to tally in-person votes first.

Unlike most states, Pennsylvania law does not allow officials to start processing early ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day. Philadelphia and other areas plan to start work on their mail-in votes at 7 a.m. sharp, officials said, but swing counties like Erie and Cumberland are intending to wait until after the polls close or even until the next morning to begin.

With more Democrats planning to vote by mail and more Republicans intend to show up to the polls on Election Day, decisions to tally the in-person votes first could give President Donald Trump -- who has repeatedly called for the race to be called on election night -- an illusory early advantage.

Most states allow advance processing for early ballots, but two key states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not allow that until Election Day, leading to the potential for counting delays that stretch beyond November 3.

A Pennsylvania election official told CNN that counties are "strongly encouraged" to begin their work on the absentee ballots at 7 a.m. But even if they don't, the official said the public would still have a good idea of what mail-in ballots are still outstanding at the time polls close and the party affiliation of those ballots. Counties can begin reporting the results at 8 p.m. after the polls close.

Each county has a different plan for how to process mail-in ballots, which are expected to hit record numbers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That includes Erie County, which swung toward Trump in 2016 and plans to begin counting in-person votes when the polls close at 8 p.m., followed by tabulating absentee ballots around 11 p.m., according to Carl Anderson, the chair of the Erie Board of Elections. Erie is planning to stop counting ballots around 2 a.m. on November 4 and restart later that morning.

Anderson said there's a concern if the mail-in ballots are reported first, the results "out of the gate could look pretty skewed," because those votes were expected to be heavily Democratic, based on ballots requested, and the county was trying to mitigate that effect.

Republican-run Cumberland County, which is outside Harrisburg, plans to report results from the polls only beginning at 8 p.m., and will not begin counting mail-in ballots until the following morning, according to Samantha Krepps, a spokeswoman for the county.

"On Election Day we will report the poll numbers, but we have three days to start the canvassing of the mail-in ballot. So, we took the opportunity to focus our attention on the election at the polls and then we will switch gears the next day," Krepps told CNN. "It's just a matter of getting the job done and we are focusing our attention on the polls because they are the most important thing on Election Day."

Luzerne County manager David Pedri said the county, near Scranton, expects to tally all in-person ballots on November 3 but will likely only have some mail-in ballots counted that day.

In Philadelphia, however, mail-in votes will start being processed at 7 a.m., according to city commissioner Lisa Deeley.

"Everything will start getting counted," Deeley said. "Results will start to go out after the polls close."

Becky Bartlett, Northampton County's deputy director of administration and public information officer, said early vote ballots will go through a scanner starting at 7 a.m., and the results will get tabulated after the polls closed, though it may take a couple of hours before they are reported. The county, outside Allentown, was hopeful they would finish their count that night, she said.

And in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, Commissioner Bob Harvie said the county is crafting a plan to begin processing mail-in ballots at 7 a.m., too. Harvie said that the county was trying to figure out "the most efficient way to get to the point where we can open a lot, scan," expecting results would begin to be reported around 10 p.m. ET.

Here are other key developments in voting as we near Election Day.

Early vote totals surpass half of all 2016 ballots cast

Early voting totals have now surpassed half of all ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election. With a week until election day, 68.5 million votes have been cast, representing 50.2% of the 136.5 million votes in the 2016 presidential election, according to a survey of election officials in all 50 states and Washington, DC, by CNN, Edison Research and Catalist.

The early voting numbers continue to break records in numerous states.

In Georgia, nearly 3 million people have voted, two-thirds in person and one-third through the mail, which is nearly three-quarters of the 4.1 million votes cast in total in 2016. In Michigan, 2.1 million absentee ballots have been returned out of 3.1 million requested, nearly doubling the 1.2 million who voted in advance in the state in 2016.

In Texas, 7.8 million people have voted, representing 46% of registered voters, compared to the 59% who voted in all in 2016. Nearly 47% of registered voters have cast ballots in North Carolina, more than 3.4 million. And New Hampshire has seen more than 180,000 absentee ballots returned, more than double the total of mail-in votes in 2016 in the Granite State.

What do the early voting numbers mean? Democrats are amassing leads in the early counts, as their voters are more likely to vote early or in person, although their advantage is starting to narrow, according to voting data analyzed by CNN.

More Republican voters are expected to vote on Election Day in person, which means it's too soon to know what the early vote totals signal. But states are anticipating higher turnout numbers: in Georgia, where there were roughly 4.1 million votes cast in 2016, GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the state was expecting to hit 4 million just in early votes, plus another 2 million people casting ballots on Election Day.

One reason voters are flocking to early in-person voting is due to concerns about the reliability of the mail.

A federal judge provided the US Postal Service with a sweeping set of orders on Tuesday to ensure ballots are delivered quickly, telling USPS to inform its employees that late delivery trips are allowed and the delivery of ballots by state elections deadlines is important.

Judge strikes down Michigan open carry directive

A Michigan judge on Tuesday struck down Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's directive to ban the open carry of firearms around polling places on Election Day.

The ruling effectively reversed Benson's October 16 order that prevented firearms within 100 feet of polling places. Benson, a Democrat, issued the directive a week after federal investigators arrested and charged a group of individuals plotting to kidnap and assassinate the state's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

Benson said in a statement she will appeal the ruling.

The Michigan ruling was one of several court decisions that could come between now and Election Day that play a role in how votes are counted and rules surrounding the polls.

A Monday night decision from the Supreme Court, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, could also offer a signal to how the high court will handle any post-election disputes.

In a concurring opinion to the Supreme Court's 5-3 decision to require mail-in votes in Wisconsin to be received by Election Day, Kavanaugh wrote that "the state courts do not have a blank check to rewrite state election laws for federal elections."

Kavanaugh also wrote that other states have not made changes to their election laws in light of the pandemic, citing Vermont. But Vermont has in fact made a significant change, sending mail-in ballots to every registered voter this election.

The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on a request from the Pennsylvania Republican Party to hear a challenge to the state's law allowing mail-in ballots to be received up to three days after Election Day, even if the postmark is illegible. Earlier this month, the court declined to take up the matter in a 4-4 decision leaving in place a lower court ruling, but now Justice Amy Coney Barrett is on the bench.

Lawyers for Pennsylvania's Luzerne County, which supports the lower court decision, filed a petition with the Supreme Court Tuesday asking Barrett to recuse herself from the case.

Meanwhile, a state court in Nevada will hear a challenge from the Trump campaign and Republicans on Wednesday morning seeking to halt the count of mail-in ballots, arguing observers aren't allowed close enough to the process and the state's signature verification software is not set to a stringent enough standard.

Trump still spreading voting falsehoods

The President continued to spread falsehoods and disinformation about mail-in voting a week before Election Day, which he's been doing for months now.

Speaking to reporters as he left the White House for rallies Tuesday, Trump falsely claimed that the law required votes to be counted on Election Day. "It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on November 3rd, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate, and I don't believe that that's by our laws," Trump said.

That's false: Election Night tallies are always unofficial, and states have deadlines to certify results that aren't until weeks after the polls close.

Later at a rally, Trump falsely claimed there would be "dumping" of ballots after Election Day, because some states allow ballots to arrive after the polls close. But those ballots must be postmarked by Election Day.

And had states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin changed their laws to allow for the processing of mail-in ballots before November 3, the results would likely have been finalized more quickly. But the GOP legislatures in both of those states failed to pass legislation to do that, fighting over the issue with the states' Democratic governors.

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