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And the Votes Are in? Why Votes Might Not All Be Counted and Collected on Election Day

Aidan Cahill | The PhoenixPennsylvania is one swing state allowing mail-in ballots to arrive after Election Day. It will be up to county offices, such as this one in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to collect and count those ballots.

In a typical election year, Americans get a sense of who’s going to win when they go to sleep on election night. But with an influx in mail-in voting, this year could be a little different as the deadline to get ballots in for some states is days after Election Day.

As The Phoenix previously reported, there has been a large increase in mail-in voting this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

While elections are typically decided on election night, the official results from each state don’t occur until later. This process is known as certification. 

John Frendries, a political science professor at Loyola, said this is normal.

Frendries said no election is certified on election night and there’s usually some delay when official election results are known, mainly due to military ballots coming in from overseas. As a result, election results reported on election night aren’t official and shouldn’t be treated as such, he said. 

While states differ in how they certify elections and when they count ballots, there’s some federal guidance. States must have all elections certified by Dec. 14, when Electoral College delegates vote. If any races are contested, those must be resolved by Dec. 8, according to the Congressional Research Service

Some states will still be collecting mail-in ballots days after Election Day. Illinois, along with 24 other states and Washington D.C., are accepting ballots that were postmarked on or before Election Day, according to vote.org

The deadline for ballots to arrive varies from state to state. For example, Texas requires all mailed ballots to arrive before or one day after Election Day, while California accepts ballots up to 17 days after. In Illinois, ballots postmarked on Election Day will be counted if they arrive within 14 days of Election Day. 

The 24 states allowing ballots after Nov. 3 represent a total of 296 electoral votes.  For reference, to win the white house a candidate must receive 270 electoral votes. This places a greater emphasis on certain states as opposed to others.  

While many of these 24 states are solid red or solid blue states, there are some crucial battleground states — where the race is close — that may still be collecting ballots after Election Day. 

In these states, the race is often too tight to predict in advance meaning candidates tend to spend a lot of time campaigning in these states. Some states in this category collecting ballots after the election include Pennsylvania and North Carolina. 

Frendries said it’ll be clear early on election night if the election is close or not. He said the outcome in Florida, a state which isn’t collecting ballots past Election Day, could determine the importance of other swing states such as Pennsylvania. He said if Trump wins Florida, then Pennsylvania becomes important for Biden to win.

Pennsylvania is one of the crucial states to watch in this election. In the 2016 election, President Donald Trump beat then-democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania with 48.2 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 47.5 percent — a difference of less than one percent, according to a New York Times election map. 

In Pennsylvania, 3.1 million mail-in ballots were sent out to voters and around 78 percent of those ballots have been returned, as of Nov. 2, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of State. 

Meanwhile, North Carolina — also a swing state — is reporting slightly less than 1.5 million voters have requested absentee ballots and over 900,000 of those have been returned as of Nov. 2, according to data from the North Carolina state board of elections.

Wisconsin is another battleground state to watch. Back in 2016, Trump won the state with 47.2 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 46.6 percent.

Whether a state accepts or declines ballots after Election Day may end up being left up to the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled against a democratic led effort in Wisconsin to force the state to accept ballots after Election Day. This followed rulings regarding Pennsylvania and North Carolina which allowed those states to extend their deadlines for ballots to be collected.

The opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, argued the power to decide election matters lay in the hands of the state legislatures as opposed to that of the Supreme Court.  The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, argued the decision to cut off the receiving of valid ballots after Election Day would disenfranchise voters.

The court has yet to come to a clear consensus on what role — if any — it might play in this year’s election over ballot acceptance or result counting. Various justices have come out with statements that indicate future challenges to previous rulings. This leaves a great deal of questions on just how exactly this election will fully play out.

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