As the countdown to Election Day draws nearer and early votes are being cast in states across the country, anticipation for a final result is reaching its peak.
However, in a year where the coronavirus pandemic has altered usual in-person voting procedures and campaigns have raised early doubts about whether results will be accurate, Pitt experts say voters should be prepared for a range of outcomes.
Pennsylvanians will likely not see results of the unofficial vote count until sometime after Nov. 3, said Chris Deluzio, policy director at the Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. He is one of the authors of a 2019 report about the need for additional federal election security funds and of the recent “Elections in the Time of COVID-19—An Action Plan for Pennsylvania’s General Election” He also has worked with Citizens for Better Elections to create the Pennsylvania Counties’ New Voting Systems: An Analysis.
“That timeline—which might test our patience but otherwise does not impact the veracity of the results—is the result of a policy choice by legislators in Harrisburg, who have refused to give county officials the ability to pre-canvass mail ballots before Election Day,” Deluzio explained. “This restriction puts Pennsylvania’s county officials in a tough position to churn out quick, unofficial results and makes Pennsylvania an outlier among states with robust mail voting.”
The states’ individual election laws and federal law will impact how long voters wait to learn results, but the U.S. Constitution calls for some actions to take place on specific dates no matter what, said Jerry Dickinson, an associate professor in the School of Law and a national expert on Constitutional law issues related to Congress, executive powers and the separation of powers.
“Mid-December is when electors certify their votes, so that raises a lot of questions as to how long litigation is going to go on for if there are disputes. There are 50 states, each has their own system of running elections and each may have varying legal issues that come about on the day of the election or after the election,” he said. “That being said, Jan. 20, 2021, is the date that the term of the president, President Trump’s term, will end. Regardless of whether he loses or wins, that term ends at that point.”
While votes are still being cast, Deluzio said citizens across the country should expect to see an increase in disinformation and be wary of whether the voting information they’re getting is coming from credible sources.
“The FBI and others in government have already warned that foreign adversaries may target American faith in our democracy in the critical days around the election, so it is important to rely on trusted and official sources for information about voting and to have a plan to vote: whether through the mail, at a county office or satellite location, or in-person," he said.
Those who make it to the polls for in-person voting on Election Day shouldn’t be concerned for their safety, said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director of the Center for Governance and Markets.
“The surprise is that Election Day will come and go without incident. The media and many pundits have been making a lot of noise about violence. Many Americans are simply exhausted from all of this,” she said.
After votes are tallied, there could be a whole new set of issues if candidates choose not to accept them, said Andrew Lotz, a senior lecturer and academic advisor in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Department of Political Science. Lotz’s work focuses on the intersection of pop culture and politics and this election cycle, his interests are on propaganda, myth and their roles in upholding leaders and institutions. During the spring semester, he taught a capstone course covering topics and news of the day related to the 2020 elections.
“I'm worried about the precedent that could get set if election results are not accepted by a candidate. Extended challenges and legal wrangling are not something our national election system was designed to handle,” Lotz said.
“The default expectation that U.S. democracy is premised upon is that after an electoral conflict, both sides accept the result and say, ‘We'll do better for the people and rethink our message so we can win next time. A situation where there's even the start to normalizing ‘I don't accept this result’ could get out of hand very fast. There are a lot of places where that pattern led to rapid decline in democratic institutions, and thinking the U.S. is somehow immune to those things is pretty myopic.”
Even if the results are disputed, Dickinson said the candidate determined to be the winner by the Electoral College will take power in January. Congress can intervene to resolve a dispute over which candidate won the Electoral College votes of a specific state, but only under rare circumstances.
“Officially, it’s not in the hands of the president of the United States to determine whether he or she has won or lost the election. While a candidate for president, whether Biden or Trump, could say they are the winner or, in the incumbent’s case, they won’t step down, it’s somewhat irrelevant because it’s out of their hands in terms of what happens.”
No matter what’s ahead, both Deluzio and Murtazashvili said citizens will need to continue the increased level of political engagement and activism that has emerged over the year in order to confront critical issues.
“My hope is that the increased activism we have seen this year focused on the election is channeled into community engagement and social organization. We do not know how much longer the coronavirus crisis will wear on. Our neighbors are our frontline in our social safety net. I am hopeful that this civic-mindedness translates into a new generation of social entrepreneurs who will work creatively to solve societies’ most pressing problems in innovative ways,” said Murtazashvili.
Deluzio said, “We will need to focus on needed reforms in the months and years to come—things like a new Voting Rights Act, an end to gerrymandered political maps, curtailing the influence of big money in politics and strengthening the resiliency and security of our election infrastructure.”
Murtazashvili said issues such as restoring trust in public institutions, the pandemic’s long-term effects on existing inequalities and foreign policy have not gotten the attention they deserve during the election but will all be concerns for the nation for years to come. She also noted Congressional Budget Office estimates that national debt is now 102% of the U.S. GDP.
“If these estimates are correct, the total U.S. debt is now greater than the size of the U.S. economy,” she said. “This problem of debt will affect the ability of the US to respond to further crises, should they arise. It will make recovery more difficult. It places an enormous burden on future generations.”
Lotz said the public would be better served by polling data that is clearer than current methods about response rates, sampling methods and what portions of the population are represented in results.
“I'd bet that right now lots of people on each side are convinced that their side is going to win—and that might change if the populace did a better job of looking at how polls are constructed and sampled,” he said.
On a positive note, Deluzio said election reform efforts kicked off years earlier have had a substantial impact on the way Pennsylvanians vote, and voters should be encouraged that activism led to reform.
“As recently as 2018, more than 80% of Pennsylvania voters were casting their votes on paperless electronic voting machines. Today, that number is zero,” Deluzio said. “This shift to paper ballots has been a tremendous improvement for Pennsylvania’s election security and our democracy.”
Important Election Information
Election Day is Nov. 3—less than a week away.
If you have a Pennsylvania mail-in ballot that you want to submit, Gov. Tom Wolf has recommended hand-delivering it to your home county’s collection sites as soon as possible.
Where can I hand-deliver my ballot if I am registered to vote in Allegheny County?
If you are registered in Allegheny County, you may hand-deliver your mail-in ballot to the Allegheny County Board of Elections Office at 542 Forbes Ave., in downtown Pittsburgh. The lobby County Office Building (where the elections office is located) is open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. through Monday, Nov. 2. On Election Day, the lobby will be open between 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
There are spaces with attendants available on Forbes Avenue for voters to pull up and return their ballot. Voters are reminded that they may only return their own ballot and that masks or face coverings are required inside the building.
The deadline to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot has passed, but the office is available to reissue ballots in the event of an error, lost mail or other circumstances.
I’m registered in another county in Pennsylvania. Can I return my ballot to Allegheny County locations?
No, you must return your mail-in or absentee ballot to the elections office in the county in which you are registered to vote—other counties cannot accept your ballot
I’m registered outside of Pennsylvania. How do I cast my vote?
State-specific information is available, but you should also double-check with your home state to determine whether there are recent changes to election rules in your state.
Where can I get more information?
The Allegheny County Elections Division website has details, FAQs and additional resources.
Additional helpful links
Political activity at Pitt
Pennsylvania’s voter registration period has passed. Refer to additional resources if you are looking for information on other states’ registration rules.
Pitt’s Office of Community and Government Relations has additional information and links.