WASHINGTON - It's the morning after the Nov. 3 election, and the world doesn't know who won the U.S. presidency because there are hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania that won't be counted for days as lawyers descend to battle over the votes.
That's the worst-case election scenario emerging if the race is so close that a single state will determine whether President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden has the necessary 270 Electoral College votes to win the White House.
In 2000, the race came down to fewer than 600 votes in Florida. This year, with a record number of mail-in votes expected to be cast because of the coronavirus pandemic, Pennsylvania is perhaps most at risk for a post-election meltdown because of a confluence of factors, according to experts in election administration and law.
The commonwealth is new to mail-in voting and took weeks to count ballots during its June 2 primary. Counties can't start processing ballots until Election Day, virtually guaranteeing they won't all be tabulated by that night. Pennsylvania was decided by only 44,292 votes in 2016, and its election laws allow for ballot challenges and appeals to drag on, increasing the risk for delayed results.
"We're all bracing ourselves for a circumstance where we're going to be under the microscope from the rest of the country and the rest of the world," said Patrick Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan civic organization in Philadelphia that focuses on election law and voting.
Pennsylvania may not be alone. The crucial swing states of Wisconsin and Michigan could also find themselves in a similar predicament, since they also can't begin processing mail-in ballots until Election Day. But Pennsylvania, with its 20 Electoral College votes, has the highest odds of any state of being the tipping point in the election, according to an analysis by the FiveThirtyEight website.
Judging by how Pennsylvania performed in its June primary, there's plenty of reason for alarm. Officials had changed election rules back in October 2019, well before the outbreak of the virus, to allow voters to request a mail-in ballot without having to provide an excuse. In the June primary, almost 1.5 million people cast votes by mail or absentee - increasing to 51% of the total vote from 2% in the 2018 primary.
It took almost three weeks for all 1.5 million mail-in and absentee ballots in the commonwealth to be tabulated. About half the counties were still counting more than a week after the primary, according to a state report. Philadelphia, the most populous, didn't even start counting mail-in votes until the day after the primary while it focused on in-person voting. Officials there needed 15 days to complete the count.
In November, officials expect the number of mail-in voters to double to about 3 million.
The race is also shaping up to be very close. Biden's advantage in Pennsylvania has been narrowing since July, and he now holds a lead of 3.8 percentage points over Trump, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.