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Seven Pennsylvania counties will wait until after Election Day to process mail-in ballots

It is unclear what impact this could have on the timing of the results.
Mail-in ballots before being sorted at the Chester County Voter Services office in West Chester, Pa., on Oct. 23, 2020.Matt Slocum / AP

Seven out of Pennsylvania's 67 counties will wait to count mail-in ballots until the day after the election, according to local officials, potentially delaying when media organizations will be able to project a winner in the state.

Pennsylvania allows for counties to begin processing mail-in ballots the morning of Election Day, but officials in Beaver, Cumberland, Franklin, Greene, Juniata, Mercer and Montour — all counties which voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — said that concerns over staffing and resources led them to delay when they will count mail ballots.

It is unclear what impact this could have on the timing of the results. The counties range in population size, but roughly a combined 150,000 voters in these areas have requested mail-in ballots according to state data.

Trump won Pennsylvania by a little more than 44,000 votes in 2016 and with 20 Electoral College votes, the state could determine the winner of this year's election. Polls have consistently shown Joe Biden leading Trump in the state by a few percentage points.

Forest County, where Trump also won, said they were considering waiting to count their mail-in ballots, too, depending on what the workload on Election Day looked like.

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she is working to have conversations with these counties, urging them to start counting on Tuesday.

"Even if you could only do part [of the process], to get started as early as humanly possible on Election Day matters for every single county of any size," Boockvar told reporters on Friday.

Beaver County Commissioner Jack Manning said the ability to pre-canvass, a technical term for opening up mail-in ballots and prepping them for the counting process, ahead of Election Day would have made all the difference. Efforts to move up the pre-canvassing timeline were sacked after legal battles and party interests left the statehouse in a stalemate last week.

"We do not have the capacity to work and securely oversee 129 polling venues, secure those election day votes and also simultaneously open up 35,000 mail-in votes and then start manually scanning after the polls close Tuesday," Manning wrote in an email to NBC News.

"We will handle and count the polling location votes Tuesday night and then start fresh in the morning on the mail-in ballots."

Boockvar also agreed that pre-canvassing would have been "effective election administration."

"That's what 46 states across the country has," Boockvar said. "And we are one of the rare states that somehow did not find a way to pass this law."

The current canvassing timeline allows counties to only start processing mail-in ballots at 7a.m. ET on Election Day. Any decision to delay that process fully complies with the state’s election statute.

Mike Belding, chairman of the Greene County Commissioners says the decision to delay was made "based on county staff and availability of people to work both the polls and start ballot processing."

Belding, who said that the county purchased envelope openers and a high-speed scanner, expressed confidence that waiting to count mail-in ballots would not delay in reporting overall results from his area, saying, "Greene County will not be the delay in election results in Southwestern PA."

Boockvar noted that while some of these counties cited lack of resources, at least four counties had not applied for the grant funding the state provided, adding, "please send us the receipts and we’re happy to give you the money."

But county election officials say it’s too late, as plans and staffing are already set.

"There is absolutely nothing the state can provide now that will change our plans," said Holly Brandon, chief clerk of Montour County.

"I can’t imagine this November 3 being a quiet day at the polls, especially in light of lawsuits, voter distrust of the process and the USPS, reckless rhetoric and a number of new laws that have taxed us incredibly," Brandon added.