Will Pennsylvania see another “red mirage” in the 2024 election?

Former President Donald Trump, left, is joined Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

By Sean Kitchen

January 25, 2024

Pennsylvanians may witness another scenario where former President Donald Trump ends Election Day with a lead, but eventually loses due to mail-in ballots being counted. Legislators can prevent this from happening with one simple reform. 

Pennsylvania voters should prepare themselves for the possibility of another “red mirage” on Election Day in November  due to the commonwealth’s lack of pre-canvassing reforms, which would allow  county election officials to open mail-in ballots and prepare them to be counted prior to Election Day. 

A red mirage occurred in the 2020 presidential election, when former President Donald Trump ended Election Day ahead of President Joe Biden, due to Trump directing his voters to vote on Election Day and not by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. And since Election Day votes are counted first in Pennsylvania, this created the impression that Trump had a lead. But this mirage  evaporated in the following days when the commonwealth’s most populous counties counted their mail-in ballots, which elevated Biden to victory. 

Prominent Republicans such as State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) and others used this mirage and their opposition to mail-in ballots to help fuel unfounded conspiracy theories and claims that Trump won Pennsylvania because Trump ended Election Day ahead of Biden.

2024 could see more of the same, unless lawmakers act. 

“Some of the larger counties are going to have some difficulties under the current structure,” Jeff Reber, a Union County Commissioner and chair of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s (CCAP) Election Reform Committee, told The Keystone after being asked if larger counties like Philadelphia or Montgomery will be able to count their mail-in ballots on Election Day and give voters comfort in knowing who won the state that evening.

Under current law, election officials cannot open and prepare mail-in ballots to be counted until Election Day. 

“That’s why we’re asking for 15 days ahead of time for a cutoff for the mail-in ballots requests, or just give us some extra time to do the pre-canvassing, which simply means we’re not counting ballots yet. We’re just opening the envelopes. We’re preparing them to be counted,” he continued.

Reber was at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg on Wednesday speaking at a press conference on behalf of CCAP, which was laying out their legislative and budget priorities for the year.  

The organization, which lobbies in Harrisburg on behalf of Pennsylvania’s county governments, has spent the past several years advocating for pre-canvassing reforms, but those efforts have been blocked by Republicans in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. 

House Democrats advanced a pre-canvassing bill out of the State Government Committee last April that would give counties seven days to pre-canvass ballots and close the window for mail-in ballot applications to 11 days prior to the election, so voters have the time to receive and return their ballots.

There will be little to no time to implement pre-canvassing reforms for the primary elections in April due to the legislature being on break until March. Any potential changes would have to wait for the presidential election. 

Christopher Borick, a Political Science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, agrees that Pennsylvanians may be faced with a red mirage this November. 

“We know from experience that Republicans continue to largely vote on Election Day and not use mail balloting, while Democrats are much more diverse in terms of their [voting] methods,” Borick said in an interview with The Keystone.

“Could there be a reasonable scenario where we get election night results showing one candidate ahead, and as mail ballots come in largely from voters of a different party, that shifts? The answer is ‘yeah’ and the conditions make that a reality.”

Borick believes that passing pre-canvassing reforms is one of the simplest ways to prevent this mirage from happening and prevent a possible repeat of what was seen following the 2020 election. 

“I think it is one of the most solvable problems in electoral processes right now in the state,” Borick said. 

“It seems that the partisanship that we see in Harrisburg where that still is blocking, this is the one big hindrance…with all the undermining of confidence in democratic processes, this is one thing that could be addressed. If you can get those results quicker, it solves one of the big concerns that people are saying, ‘well, what’s going on?’”



Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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