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What Supreme Court decision means for counting Pennsylvania ballots

The Supreme Court is playing a key role in the 2020 election in these final days of the campaign. Just this week, it handed down rulings on absentee ballot deadlines in three crucial battleground states: North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Daniel Bush joins John Yang to discuss what the Pennsylvania decision means for voters, election officials and when we might have the state’s results.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court is proving to be a key piece of the 2020 election in these final days.

    Just this week, the court has handed down rulings on absentee ballot deadlines in three crucial battlegrounds.

    John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, late yesterday, the court said that new deadlines for mail-in ballots could take effect in North Carolina and in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, ballots can arrive as late as Friday the 6th. In North Carolina, it's Thursday the 12th.

    Earlier in the week, the court blocked a new deadline in Wisconsin. Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn't participate in any of the cases, but that doesn't signal her recusal from future election cases.

    The "NewsHour"'s Dan Bush has been focusing his reporting efforts in the important state of Pennsylvania.

    Dan, the way things are shaping up, Pennsylvania could be pivotal. Given what the court did yesterday, what does that mean? What does the court's action mean for voters in Pennsylvania?

  • Daniel Bush:

    John, this could have a big impact in a critical battleground state.

    So, what the court did was allowed voters who postmarked their mail-in or absentee ballots by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, those votes can be counted if they're received by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, so three days later. That could potentially be significantly more votes.

    Now, there is a big caveat, though, John, and that is that the Supreme Court ruling left the door wide open for a legal challenge after the election. So, while these votes will count right now, they could wind up back in court.

    And, finally, John, this is important, because Pennsylvania could be a very, very close state. Four years ago, Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes out of more than six million cast. So, for both sides, every vote could count if it's a close race.

  • John Yang:

    And even before the court acted yesterday, the secretary of state put out a guidance to board of elections around the state about how to handle those ballots. What was that all about?

  • Daniel Bush:

    That's right.

    So, the secretary of state's office told county election officials, listen, put these votes aside, these mail-in absentee ballots that come in after Election Day, and wait to count them. This was in anticipation of a potential legal battle.

    So, the thinking is here, if you separate those votes out, they will be easier to find, they will be easier to track if they do wind up back in court.

    So, what election officials are telling me, John, is, they are going to keep a close watch on those. They're going to collect them, put them to the side, and wait until 5:00 p.m. on the Friday after the Election Day, at which point they can begin to pre-canvass them, process them, and then count them.

  • John Yang:

    And we should point out, some of these ballots are overseas military ballots as well. So, that's the ballots that come after 8:00 p.m. on Election Day and before 6:00 p.m. on Friday.

    What about the ballots that are arriving now? When will those be processed?

  • Daniel Bush:

    That's a good question, John.

    So, under Pennsylvania state law, mail-in and absentee ballots can't begin to be, what — pre-canvass, the term is, or taken out of their envelopes, verified, scanned until 7:00 a.m. on Election Day.

    So, right now, county officials have told me they have been receiving these for a while now. They are stacked up in secure locations. They are ready to be processed and counted. But they can't begin to do that until 7:00 a.m. on Election Day.

    And they say that might make it significantly harder to finish that process and put up results that night, because they are dealing with a record number of mail-in and absentee ballots because of the pandemic from voters who did not want to come in and cast a ballot in person on Election Day.

    Those are the mail-in votes. The in-person votes, of course, those are folks who are going to go to the polls in Pennsylvania, which does not have early in person voting, on Election Day, and those results, officials can begin to count when polls close at 8:00 p.m.

  • John Yang:

    Given that volume of mail-in ballots and absentee ballots from overseas, given what you just said about when they can start to be counted, sort of a little viewer's guide for us, what should people at home as they watch the results from Pennsylvania election night, and maybe beyond, what should they be keeping in mind about how those numbers may change?

  • Daniel Bush:

    So, we know from national surveys that Republicans say they're more likely to vote in person. Democrats say they're more likely to vote by mail.

    We can expect a significant amount of Republican voters, especially in Western part of Pennsylvania, to cast ballots in person. Those early results could be good for President Trump.

    However, as I said, because there are so many mail-in ballots, and because the state can't begin to count them until 8:00 p.m., officials have been telling me, listen, this could take a long time. It could take into the night. It could take into the next day.

    So, we do expect those results to begin to shift on Wednesday, when those ballots are counted.

  • John Yang:

    Dan Bush on Pennsylvania.

    Dan will be in Pennsylvania on election night for the "NewsHour."

    Dan, thanks a lot.

  • Daniel Bush:

    Thanks, John.

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