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The Count #17: Will Pennsylvania Decide the Election?

The Count is a daily newsletter and live show from The Appeal and NowThis, focused on what happens in the scenario that the 2020 presidential race is too close to call on election night, if President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to not accept the election results, and what we can do in the 77 days between election day and the inauguration to uphold our democracy.

Today, we’ll look at:

  • How Pennsylvania could decide the election.
  • What nightmare election scenarios could look like.

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  • 1 days until election day.
  • 36 days until the deadline for all ballots to be counted.
  • 42 days until electoral college slates send their votes to Congress.
  • 65 days until Congress counts electoral college votes.
  • 79 days until inauguration day.


When the polls close tomorrow, the race will begin with that magic number: 270 electoral college votes. Based on current polling, former Vice President Joe Biden has more paths to 270 than President Donald Trump, but for both candidates, the path to victory runs through Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

These three states had been part of the Democrats “blue wall” until Trump won the trio in 2016. But Pennsylvania, where polling shows it’s a tighter race than in Michigan or Wisconsin, is set to be the most important of them all.

Pennsylvania (Largely) Decides:

  • TOP VOTES — Pennsylvania, along with Illinois, has the fifth most electoral college votes with 20 votes up for grabs. (California has the most with 55, followed by Texas with 38, and Florida and New York with 29 each.)
  • TIPPING POINT — Pennsylvania is the state that is “most likely to decide the election.” Democrats believe it will be their “tipping point” to 270, while Trump can hold onto his office if he loses Michigan and Wisconsin, but wins the rest of his 2016 states, including Pennsylvania.
  • BIDEN AHEAD — Biden is ahead in Pennsylvania polling by an average of 5.2% as of Friday, but according to FiveThirtyEight, a polling error equivalent to 2016 could mean the state goes to Trump.
  • GAME OF CHANCE — If Biden wins Pennsylvania, FiveThirtyEight forecasts he has a 98% chance of winning the election. If Trump were to take the state, the president’s chances increase to 64%.
  • NOT THE END — If Trump did win Pennsylvania, that would still leave Biden with more than a one-in-three chance at a win and several scenarios to reach 270.

So far, Pennsylvania has seen record early voting turnout after introducing no-excuse mail-in ballots last year, and voter registration in Philadelphia is at its highest level in nearly four decades. But early voting, compared to 2016, is actually at some of the lowest levels in key battleground states.

Election officials in several counties said they wouldn’t count mail-in ballots until after election day, which has received pushback from the secretary of state. One county said the vote at the polls was the “most important thing” on Nov. 3, while a board of elections chair in another county said reporting mail-in ballots first–which are expected to lean Democratic–could make results “look pretty skewed.”

Pennsylvania state Representative Joanne McClinton told The Count how the Republican legislature’s decision to block mail-in ballots from being processed ahead of election day has left counties to come up with their own rules.

“We have to make sure that we’re vigilant, that we’re ready, and that we’re not accepting any outcomes for our state–unless it’s such a disparity in the numbers that [one candidate is] more numbers ahead than there are uncounted ballots. That’s the only set of circumstances where we could trust an outcome on Tuesday night.”



On Friday, Trump reiterated his–impossible–demand for election results to be finalized on election day.

“The Election should END on November 3rd,” Trump tweeted.

While casting ballots will certainly end, we’ve repeatedly covered how counting all the ballots on election night would be impossible: Election officials never finalize results on election night and it’s just not feasible for this year’s record-breaking 55 million mail-in ballots to all be counted by midnight on Nov. 3.

Sowing chaos and confusion to supersede the vote count:

  1. Trump’s insistence that results be announced on Tuesday night combined with the likely “red mirage” of Republican-leaning election day votes, has election officials concerned (and his allies concurring) that Trump will declare himself the winner before the clock strikes twelve.
  2. From there, Trump has already laid the groundwork to label as fraudulent the “blue shift” of Democratic-leaning mail-in ballots.
  3. The goal of these claims is to help stir public support for two paths to supersede the vote count: legal battles waged by Republicans to reject mail-in ballots and/or the appointment of competing slate of Trump electors by Republican state legislatures.

The success of this third stage of Trump’s plan to steal the election relies on public support — or at least lack of vocal opposition. This is why dozens of groups, representing millions of Americans, plan to take part in non-violent protests and civil disobedience if Trump refuses to accept election results or blocks the counting of votes.

There are serious concerns of violence:

  • LASER FOCUS — Franita Tolson, a vice dean and professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and a fellow with The Justice Collaborative Institute, told The Count that if Congress needs to decide on competing electors, “the real fear people have is about the potential for violence. The potential for massive unrest, because all eyes will be on whatever state is at the center of the dispute.”

  • VIOLENCE EXPECTED — Three-quarters of voters say they’re concerned about violence on election day and in the days afterward. Stores are preparing for destruction, and the government has acknowledged the risk of domestic extremists targeting the “election itself … or the post-election period.
  • CONDITIONS RIPE — The current conditions in America–high levels of distrust and suspicion, increased polarization, and extreme groups threatening violence–“are ripe for conflict and maybe even violence,” global conflict experts have told NPR.
  • TRUMP’S ROLE — On top of all this, as a report from the International Crisis Group says, “Trump’s often incendiary rhetoric suggests he will more likely stoke than calm tensions.”
  • THE RESULT MAY NOT MATTER — But different experts say that even if there’s an immediate landslide win for either side, violence could still erupt. “The social problems are the gasoline. Trump is throwing matches,” George Mason University sociologist Jack Goldstone told Buzzfeed.

“The risk of unrest may ebb and flow as the final days of the campaign unfold, but it is almost certain to remain, and it will increase if either side forms the impression that the vote has been rigged,” the International Crisis Group report says.


  • How could Trump steal the election? A new report takes you through a step-by-step.
  • This is the most litigated election in US history, and a new podcast episode looks at what role the courts may play in coming days.
  • Texas’ early voter turnout has surpassed its entire 2016 vote. By Friday it had hit 100.4%.
  • Texas’ competitiveness this year could, in part, come down to more Democratic-leaning voters moving to the state or moving to new housing developments in a different county.
  • Minnesota will put aside ballots it receives after 8 p.m. on election day, after an appeals court ruling. It is not yet known if these votes will be allowed to be counted.
  • Aside from mail-in ballots, a new record of millions of provisional ballots–that are counted after election day–is expected this year.
  • Asian American and Pacific Islander voters “could provide the margin of victory” in the country’s 10 most contested states.
  • Taylor Swift licensed her music for the first time to a political campaign. The song “Only the Young,” is the theme of California Representative Eric Swalwell’s latest ad.

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