The fight for the presidency comes down to millions of uncounted mail ballots in battleground states

By: - November 4, 2020 1:23 pm

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

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

Here are some questions—and answers—about what’s going on in those 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.

“I’m not here to declare that we’ve won. But I am here to report that when the count is finished, we believe we will be the winners,” Biden said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

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 61,000-vote lead with 99% 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.

How wide is the gap in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, absentee ballots from Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Green Bay gave Biden his Wednesday-morning edge. The Associated Press called the state for Biden Wednesday afternoon, and with 99% of the vote counted, Biden secured a margin of 20,517 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% margin that allows a second-place finisher to request a recount in Wisconsin, which Trump’s campaign said they would seek immediately.

“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.

And that lead narrowed throughout the day: Trump led Biden by about 81,000 votes as of mid-afternoon, as ballots in the Democratic-trending suburbs around Atlanta were tallied.

Georgia’s top election official told reporters late Wednesday morning that his office is urging all counties to wrap up results by the end of the day, the Georgia Recorder said.

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 Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.