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Want to know who won the presidential race on election night? Get ready to wait

Jonathan Lai, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- It's a familiar election night routine: Polls close, and everyone wants to know who won -- immediately. Every minute matters for Americans anxiously awaiting the results. News organizations race to meet the demand by using complex statistical models to "call" the winner long before all the votes are counted.

But get comfortable waiting: Instant electoral gratification is about to become a thing of the past.

A new Pennsylvania law that allows any voter to cast a ballot by mail, along with a surge in requests for mail-in ballots driven by fears of voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic, has set up a 2020 election in which everyone could be left waiting for days before results are known.

That might not bother the public much when it comes to the June 2 primary, with a Democratic presidential contest that has already been effectively decided. But when President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden face off in the fall, and all eyes turn to the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, delays could effectively leave the race for the White House in limbo for days.

"If nothing changes before November, I would bet my house there would be no way anybody could responsibly call the presidential race (on election night)," said Forrest Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County, in central Pennsylvania.

The new law, which also changes how and when mail-in votes are counted, already stood to wreak havoc on the public's expectation for quick results.


"No county wants to be the reason we don't know the leader of the free world on election night," Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County's chief operating officer and clerk of its election board, said in January. "And that's the position, depending on the margin, we're all likely to be in."

Then the coronavirus hit. The number of polling places are being cut. Requests for mail ballots have gone through the roof.

Soltysiak laughed when reminded of what he said in January.

"We're not in a better place," he said this week. "All of the challenges that we're preparing to face still exist -- and we have layered on top of them those that go along with volume and the pandemic."


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