After a ‘smooth’ Election Day, Pennsylvania holds its breath for final vote count

Outside a polling site in Southwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Election Day, November 3, 2020.
Outside a polling site in Southwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Election Day, November 3, 2020. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

In Philadelphia, the largest city in the key swing state of Pennsylvania, Election Day voting largely proceeded without the tensions that many feared. But with final results not expected for several days, the suspense is far from over.

Advertising

If media reports were any indication, the leadup to this year’s presidential election put Philadelphia on edge.

In the final stretch of his campaign, US President Donald Trump made the city the focal point of baseless allegations of voter fraud. He declared from the stage of his first debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden that “bad things happen in Philadelphia” and went on to use such claims to drum up support for what he called an “army” of poll watchers that many worried could be behind widespread voter intimidation. 

Yet these concerns did little to deter Philadelphia voters from the polls come Election Day. Instead, the day was marked by high turnout, adding to the large numbers of early votes cast in the previous weeks. It’s an indicator that’s being watched especially closely in a city where a sharp drop in Black turnout contributed to Trump’s upset win in Pennsylvania in 2016, by just 44,000 votes.

At Mitchell Elementary School, a polling site in the Kingsessing section of predominantly Black West Philadelphia, several hundred voters lined up when polls opened at 7am, and more continued to trickle in through the afternoon.

Local election official Christina Williams told FRANCE 24 there were “definitely more people” at the polling site than usual this year, in addition to the many more who voted by mail. Still, she said, the process was “smooth” throughout, with few voters having to wait longer than 20 minutes.

Christina Williams, secretary for Philadelphia’s 51st election ward, outside Mitchell Elementary School, a polling place in West Philadelphia.
Christina Williams, secretary for Philadelphia’s 51st election ward, outside Mitchell Elementary School, a polling place in West Philadelphia. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

Williams serves as secretary for Philadelphia’s 51st ward, one of the city’s 66 electoral subdivisions, and has worked many elections. Another factor also caught her by surprise this year: the number of people who showed up at the polls after having skipped several elections. Many of their registrations had lapsed, forcing them to cast provisional ballots.

Williams said that while she had already voted by mail, she felt it was important to spend the day at the polling site to “make sure the community is comfortable in their voting rights”. She said concerns about voter intimidation were well founded, after Trump supporters in the Philadelphia area led a car caravan to the city centre on Sunday, blocking traffic. 

In late October, members of the Trump campaign were also reported to be filming Philadelphia voters depositing their ballots in drop boxes, which Pennsylvania’s attorney general said could amount to illegal intimidation.

Sam Moore, a 70-year-old volunteer with One PA, came to the polling site to guard against just such incidents. Through the group he signed up with the Election Defenders, a nationwide progressive coalition seeking to keep voters safe and protect them from intimidation.

Sam Moore, a volunteer with One PA and the nonpartisan Election Defenders coalition.
Sam Moore, a volunteer with One PA and the nonpartisan Election Defenders coalition. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

“We haven’t encountered any problems so far,” he said on Tuesday afternoon. Instead, Moore said he’d mostly been helping voters with logistics. He was buoyed by the steady turnout, especially among new voters. 

Shakeem Nelson, 19, was among those first-time voters. Like all those at Mitchell Elementary who told FRANCE 24 who they voted for, Nelson chose Democrats up and down the ballot. But he said he and his peers aren’t especially political.

“All we know is, don't vote for Trump,” he said. Asked about casting his first-ever vote in an historic presidential election, he added: “It felt normal. It felt good.”

Shakeem Nelson, 19, voted for the first time on Tuesday.
Shakeem Nelson, 19, voted for the first time on Tuesday. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

Legal challenges expected

What’s less clear is how long that sense of normalcy will last now that polls have closed. A final tally of Pennsylvania’s votes is not expected for at least several days. As of 12:30am Eastern Time Wednesday, initial returns give Donald Trump a strong lead in the state, but the tally includes less than two-thirds of all votes statewide and only about a third in Philadelphia, which leans heavily Democratic.

Mail-in ballots are also expected to continue trickling in for three more days under an extension provisionally approved by the Supreme Court. However, the court required the state to separate out any mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day, reserving the right to rule on their validity at a later date.

If Tuesday’s returns prove close enough, that could put the fate of this key state in the hands of the nation’s highest court, making it one of the most likely sites for a Bush v. Gore-style challenge of the final results. Philadelphia-based election analyst Jonathan Tannen, who maintains the blog Sixty-Six Wards, calls this a likely outcome based on the returns so far.

“We are going to end up where we knew we were all along,” he wrote on Twitter. “Trump will appear up in the counted votes at the end of the night. But the mail-ins will heavily favor Biden. Count every vote.”

That means final results in this key battleground could come down to a combination of turnout, the courts — and patience.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning