Around the state, there are already worrying indications that the election will not go smoothly. In Butler County, thousands of requested mail-in ballots have gone missing. Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat, has been raising alarms about thousands of complaints of delays with the local postal service, which he worries will affect mail-in voting; when he and the Democratic Representative Susan Wild tried to inspect the workings of a post office in Northampton County, they were turned away. “Those are government representatives,” Lori Vargo Heffner, a Northampton County commissioner, said. “Why can’t they see what’s going on?” There are also troubling signs of voter intimidation. In Greene and Erie Counties, a resurgent K.K.K. has left fliers in public places, including outside the homes of voters with Biden signs. In an effort to prevent election-related violence, Erie County has restricted the movement of armed people around the polls who aren’t voting.
In September, Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court ruled that counties can tally mail-in ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day—a win for Democrats, who worry that a slow mail system will cause absentee votes, even those sent in before Election Day, to arrive late. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling, but three conservative Justices on the Court indicated that they may move to reverse it after Election Day. The fight brewing over these ballots is poised to become critical in future legal challenges; postmarks may become the hanging chad of 2020. In response, half a dozen counties, including Butler and Cumberland, have said that they won’t count any mail-in ballots until after Election Day. “You’re exhausted. You’re tired. You want to make sure these votes are counted accurately and correctly,” Bethany Salzarulo, an election official in Cumberland, said. Christopher Borick, a political analyst at Muhlenberg College, told me that these decisions by local counties “could create a significant delay in counting a third of the votes.” The delay increases the chance of a mistaken appearance on Election Night that Trump has won.
In an attempt to address a potential Supreme Court challenge, the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a directive to counties to “maintain separate counts” for ballots received after Election Day. Counties have interpreted this in different ways. In Luzerne, Keith Gould, a Republican member of the board of elections, told me that late ballots would be tallied but not included in the official vote count, despite the fact that they are currently valid. “There’s no way for us to pull them out afterward, so we’re going to put them to the side,” he said. Moskowitz will include the ballots in her county’s results, but is keeping them in a separate location in case they are challenged. “We are counting them, but we’re scanning them separately so we can know which they are,” she told me. “We might have to deduct them, which is absolutely absurd,” she said. It’s possible that the number of late ballots will be small, but they are almost certain to be largely Democratic. “What I cannot fathom is that the Republicans don’t want every vote counted,” Moskowitz said. “If their children were being disenfranchised, how would they feel?”
Still, despite Republican machinations, Kevin Greenberg, an election attorney who represents the state Democratic Party, told me that the vast majority of local officials in Pennsylvania, both Republican and Democratic, were trying to do the right thing. “Count the votes and get us an answer,” he said. Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican county commissioner in Bucks County, is urging voters to get all votes in by 8 P.M. on Election Night, and to drop them off at drop boxes rather than risking delivery by mail. “The Republicans have made it clear—and I’m a Republican—that they’d like to see those ballots not counted,” he told me. “We want every vote to count.” In an attempt to give a more accurate tally, Bucks County, which is competitive in the Presidential race, is planning to announce the initial results of both mail-in and in-person votes at 10 P.M. on Election Night. “It will be a more balanced approach, and that’s the way to do it,” DiGirolamo said. But, despite his best efforts, he worries about the legal challenges if the results in the county are close. “This is going to be very ugly for our democracy,” he said.