States of play: Presidential race comes down to mail ballots in battlegrounds

By: - November 4, 2020 11:28 am
election

Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria holds up a ballot return envelope in a video explaining how to vote by mail in October.

President Donald Trump prematurely declared victory early Wednesday morning, but the outcome of a razor-thin presidential contest actually depends on battleground states, including Nevada, that are trying to finish tallying millions of remaining mail ballots.

Trump trails Joe Biden by less than a percentage point in Nevada. The secretary of state has announced additional statewide results will not be released until Thursday morning. Left to count, according to the office, are mail ballots received on Election Day, mail ballots received over the next week, and provisional ballots.

Nevada law allows ballots received up to seven days after Election Day to be counted, so long as those ballots were postmarked on or before Election Day.

Here are some questions—and answers—about what’s going on in other close states:

Why is the counting process slow?

It’s taking time in states like Pennsylvania, where an unprecedented 2.5 million voters cast their ballots by mail. Pennsylvania’s election laws do not allow county officials to begin processing mail ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day, and some counties were not expected to start processing those ballots until Wednesday.

How did Trump justify saying he’d won?

The president pointed to his early leads in Pennsylvania and Michigan, but the remaining mail ballots in Michigan were expected to lean in favor of his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Later Wednesday morning, Trump’s campaign staffers asserted that they see a pathway to victory in those two states as well as in Arizona, and that Wisconsin was close enough to require a recount.

Where has Trump’s campaign filed legal actions?

Trump’s campaign is challenging the vote-counting in at least three states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

He’s seeking a recount in Wisconsin, and in Michigan, Trump’s team has filed a lawsuit to halt the counting of remaining ballots. Trump’s campaign also is seeking to freeze counting in Pennsylvania, and to intervene in a case at the Supreme Court, challenging a Pennsylvania court ruling allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they are received by Friday.

What is the Biden camp saying? 

Biden’s campaign expressed confidence that the Democrat would retake the former “blue wall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, as well as Nevada, but that Georgia was a tossup and North Carolina likely a narrow win for Trump.

What is going on in Pennsylvania?

When Trump spoke to supporters at the White House around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, he pointed to his lead of nearly 700,000 votes in Pennsylvania’s early returns, arguing that he was winning the state by “a tremendous amount.”

What the president did not explain was that the votes counted were largely from the in-person balloting that was expected to favor him, and that some 1.4 million mail ballots — expected to lean toward Democrats — were still uncounted. Election experts had repeatedly warned in advance of the election that Trump would likely show a lead in early returns of in-person voters.

By mid-morning Wednesday, the state’s online dashboard showed nearly 922,000 mail ballots still to be counted. Officials in Philadelphia, a key Democratic stronghold, said they had counted 141,000 mail ballots out of the 353,000 received, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pennsylvania’s online election results showed Trump still leading, 55% to 44%, with a margin of 587,483 votes. Allegheny County—home to Pittsburgh—and other counties in the Philadelphia suburbs also had significant mail ballots still to be counted Wednesday morning, and ballots counted so far have favored Biden, 77% to 22%.

Trump’s campaign, however, emphasized that several counties where the president is favored, including Westmoreland and Luzerne, also have sizable stacks of mail ballots still to be counted.

Another looming issue: the legal fights surrounding late-arriving ballots that were postmarked by Election Day but received by Friday. Republicans sought to block those ballots from being counted. The U.S. Supreme Court did not grant their request before Tuesday, though it left open the possibility of taking up the matter after Election Day.

What about Michigan?

Michigan also saw a swell of 3.26 million mail ballots, demolishing previous records for mail balloting in a state Trump won in 2016 by 10,704 votes. State officials projected that they would be finished counting by Wednesday night.

Some 25,000 absentee ballots in Detroit were still to be counted as of Wednesday morning, and those remaining votes are expected to favor Biden. The Democrat pulled ahead of Trump in updated vote tallies Wednesday morning, showing a 33,000-vote lead with 96% reporting.

Under Michigan state law, a recount is triggered if statewide candidates are separated by 2,000 votes or fewer. Candidates also can petition for a recount, and must file a deposit for the cost of doing so.

AP calls Wisconsin for Biden

The Associated Press called Wisconsin for Biden midday Wednesday.

In Wisconsin, absentee ballots from Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Green Bay gave Biden his Wednesday-morning edge. With 97% of the vote counted, Biden was up by 20,748 votes.

That’s nearly the same margin that Trump won Wisconsin by in 2016, when he topped Hillary Clinton by 22,748 votes, the Wisconsin Examiner noted.

Biden’s lead is within the 1 percent margin that allows a second-place finisher to request a recount in Wisconsin. A New York Times analysis projected 100,000 ballots were left to be counted in the state.

“”Despite ridiculous public polling used as a voter suppression tactic, Wisconsin has been a razor thin race as we always knew that it would be,” the Trump campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said in a statement early Wednesday afternoon. “There have been reports of irregularities in several Wisconsin counties which raise serious doubts about the validity of the results. The President is well within the threshold to request a recount and we will immediately do so.”

When will we know about Georgia?

While Trump trailed in the former “blue wall” states, he had a nearly 102,000-vote lead over Biden in Georgia in vote totals Wednesday morning. That’s a narrower margin than in 2016, when Trump won by 211,000, underscoring the demographic shifts in the former Republican stronghold.

There were 236,000 absentee ballots still to be counted as of Wednesday morning, with the bulk of those from voters in the Democratic-trending Atlanta suburbs, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Roughly one-quarter are in Fulton County, where the head of elections said they expect results Wednesday evening. Another 48,000 are in nearby DeKalb County, which also expects to finish its tallies Wednesday.

And what about Arizona?

While The Associated Press called Arizona for Biden, Gov. Doug Ducey, who campaigned for Trump, pushed back on that race call early Wednesday morning on Twitter, arguing that the race there had narrowed.

With 86% of votes reported Wednesday morning, Biden led Trump by 93,500 votes. At least 400,000 votes were still to be counted, according to the Arizona Republic, which surveyed some country recorders across the state.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Nevada Current. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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