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Pennsylvania voting issues: 5 things to watch on Election Day

The crucial battleground state could be headed for Election Week rather than Election Day.
A man drops off a ballot for the 2020 general election outside the Hedgerow Theatre Company, on Nov. 2, 2020, in Rose Valley, Pa.Matt Slocum / AP

BEAVER, Pa. — The pressure is on in the all-important battleground state of Pennsylvania where voters, as well as party and state officials, are anxiously preparing for what could be Election Week there.

"Pennsylvania is prepared. We're protected for this election and voters can cast their ballots with confidence," Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, told reporters at a news conference Friday. "Our state has made a lot of improvements to strengthen our election system since the last presidential election in 2016."

The state overhauled its election laws last fall, the first major changes in about 80 years. But the new rules, combined with uncertainty over the Covid-19 pandemic and legal issues over mail-in voting, paint an uncertain picture of how the week could unfold.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

New voting machines and mail-in ballot processing

The June primary was the state’s first test when receiving an influx of mail-in ballots. It took nearly a month for all 67 counties to process, count and report results. Some smaller counties did this by hand, but have now invested in new ballot scanning and processing machines.

Counties also have new voting machines, as the state pushed for an option with a paper trail to allow for easier auditing.

"We will have accurate results even if it takes a little longer than normal. On Tuesday night and the days that follow, I encourage all of us to take a deep breath and just stay calm," Wolf said.

However, new technology isn't always perfect, as officials involved with the ill-fated Iowa caucus this year know. The Pennsylvania Department of State’s office has not responded to questions from NBC News on whether the new systems have been stress-tested for general election capacity.

Undelivered mail ballots

Several counties — Lehigh, Bucks and Butler in particular — received hundreds, "if not thousands," of calls from voters who had requested a mail-in ballot but not received them just days before the election, county officials said.

Officials worked to correct the issue, but ultimately those who still haven’t received their mail-in ballot have been urged to go vote in person Tuesday using provisional ballots, which are the last to be counted.

Counties waiting to start processing mail-in ballots

At least seven counties — amounting to nearly 150,000 mail-in ballots — are choosing to wait to start processing and counting their mail-in ballots until Wednesday morning, citing lack of space, resources or staff. Counties are able to start processing at 7 a.m. on Election Day, forced to wait after ballot pre-processing was held up indefinitely in statehouse stalemates. It’s unknown how counties choosing to wait will play into the timing of results.

Earlier this cycle, NBC News reported how the drama over lawsuits and changing rules led to nearly a quarter of Pennsylvania's veteran election officials to leave their jobs since the passage of Act 77, the state’s new election code in October 2019.

'Naked' ballots could invalidate up to 100,000 votes

Whether they are mailed in or delivered to a ballot drop-box, any ballots returned without their secrecy envelope will be thrown out, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in September.

Voting rights advocates, as well as one of Philadelphia's top elections officials, said the ruling could affect as many as 100,000 ballots across the state. Many counties have now pushed voter education pamphlets emphasizing that voters need to include both envelopes when returning their ballots.

Further impending lawsuits

Trump on Sunday told reporters he plans to send in his legal teams to fight the ballots counted after Election Day in battleground states, including Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro responded in a tweet, saying, "If your lawyers want to try us, we’d be happy to defeat you in court one more time." It was a reference to the three lawsuits the president’s campaign lost leading up to the election, which ultimately caused more confusion among voters over what was allowed.

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