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Explainer: Why are Pennsylvania and North Carolina taking so long to count election votes?

Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 has played its part in the delay.

WITH COUNTING IN the US presidential election now into its third day, two states are lagging far behind the rest of the country. 

While six states are still awaiting a result, some will be done sooner than others, and the battleground states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina will be counting votes for several days yet.

President Donald Trump prematurely claimed victory in Pennsylvania on Wednesday despite none of the networks or the Associated Press awarding him the Rust Belt state.

election-2020-protests-pennsylvania Demonstrators on the steps of the City-County building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Source: Gene J. Puskar via AP

As the day wore on the incumbent’s lead of around 600,000 votes was cut in half and the race has tightened further today to around 165,000. State election officials say it could take several more days for the “overwhelming majority” of the votes to be counted.

A similar situation prevails in North Carolina, where Trump holds a lead of just over 1% with 95% of the votes reported. Despite the endline seemingly being in sight, officials in the state have said they won’t be announcing more results until next week.

Why is this taking so long?

Holding an election amidst a pandemic brought a host of new challenges and some US states have proven more adept at handling them than others.

Absentee voting smashed all previous records this year with around 100 million voters casting their ballot ahead of polling day.

In some states, like Florida, the process worked very well as counters were able to tot up early votes as they were received.

State law prevented this from happening in Pennsylvania, meaning officials weren’t allowed to start processing ballots until 7am on election day. Efforts to start counting early were blocked by Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature.

Florida has a long tradition of early voting, due to its large elderly population and its susceptibility to hurricanes. No such tradition previously existed in Pennsylvania but this year the state received 2.6 million mail-in ballots. Officials say that’s 10 times the amount of absentee ballots that are cast during a normal election.

The Keystone State is also allowing mail-in votes to be received up until tomorrow if they were postmarked by Election Day. This has become a bone of contention for the Trump campaign which is desperately clinging on to its narrow lead in the crucial state.

mail-in-ballot-counting-in-wilkes-barre-us-04-nov-2020 Officials opening mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The campaign said it would challenge late-arriving mail-in ballots at the Supreme Court. However, the votes are unlikely to change the result in the state as election officials have said that only a few hundred late votes have been received. 

Nine Pennsylvania counties further added to the delays by deciding not to start counting mail-in ballots until Wednesday.

With approximately 90% of the vote reported this afternoon (Irish time) Trump’s lead was down to around 165,000 votes, a margin of 1.6%.

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North Carolina

Trump also claimed to have won North Carolina, which is a must-win for him if he is to retain the White House. In reality the race is currently too-close to call with about 117,000 mail-in votes left to count. 

In a pattern that has played out across the US, Biden is outperforming Trump in mail-in votes, meaning the remaining ballots could flip the state in his favour. That result would represent only the second time North Carolina has backed a Democrat for president since 1976.

The southeastern state has an even longer period for accepting mail-in ballots, counting them if they are received before 12 November (next Thursday) as long as they are post marked by 3 November.

Another unknown is how many provisional ballots were recorded. These are ballots where a question mark hangs over the voter’s eligibility that needs to be resolved before it counts.

The issues can crop up for a number of reasons including the voter’s name not appearing on the electoral role or the voter not having identification.

In the 2016 election North Carolina recorded 61,000 provisional ballots and around 27,000 of these ended up being counted. Officials said that the total number of provisional ballots will be known later today.

North Carolina doesn’t appear to be in any rush to finish the count as the state has signaled that it’s not likely to report any additional results until next week.

“With very few exceptions, North Carolina’s numbers are not going to move until 12 or 13 November,” the head of the State Board of Elections, Karen Brinson Bell, said.

Thankfully the outcome in the election will likely be called much sooner than that. 

About the author:

Ceimin Burke

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