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All eyes are on Pennsylvania this week. But why?

Chester County, Pa., election worker Kristina Sladek opened mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 General Election in the United States at West Chester University on Tuesday.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Pennsylvania has emerged as the make-or-break state for the Biden and Trump campaigns, but official results in the state might not be known for days due to the influx of millions of mail-in ballots, a state law that prohibits those ballots from being tallied until Election Day, and a brewing legal battle that could invalidate thousands of votes. Whoever ultimately wins in the state will not only nab its 20 electoral votes but potentially the entire election.

What’s so special about Pennsylvania anyway?

Only four states pack more punch electorally than Pennsylvania, and many election experts see it as the knife’s edge on which the race is balanced. Forecasts label the state as a likely “tipping point” that could define the election. Polls have Biden leading in Pennsylvania by a smaller margin — roughly 5 percent — than in the other Rust Belt states of Michigan and Wisconsin, and that lead generally falls within the margin of error. So it could be very close.

Prior to 2016, Pennsylvania had voted for the Democrat in six straight presidential elections. But non-Hispanic white people without bachelor’s degrees — a key demographic for Trump — make up 55 percent of Pennsylvania’s population age 25 or older. A fall in labor union membership and a push to blame environmental policies for the decline in the state’s mining and manufacturing industries have eroded the Democratic base that once defined the state. As a result, Trump won there by less than one percentage point in the last election.


Outsized attention has been paid to Pennsylvania since the start of the 2020 election cycle. (That’s why fracking — a niche environmental issue of particular interest to blue-collar swing voters in Pennsylvania — has been given disproportionate attention in national debates.) In the final days before the election, both candidates have zeroed in on the tightening race, with Biden spending his final 36 hours there.


Why Election Day might look different than the election results

Many states, including the battleground juggernaut of Florida, have already begun counting mail-in and in-person ballots. The extra processing time for those early votes will allow state officials to report votes more quickly. But Republicans in Pennsylvania have refused to allow ballots to be counted, or even sorted and opened, before 7 a.m. on Election Day.

The nation should be prepared for a sizable swing in the vote as Pennsylvania tallies up its mail-in ballots. They will arrive in so-called secrecy envelopes that are particularly cumbersome to open because it involves opening two envelopes, then flattening, scanning, and counting the ballot inside. Polls suggest three-fourths of those mail-in ballots will go in Biden’s favor. Meanwhile, votes cast in person on Election Day will be tallied with more ease and speed.

Typically, the results that cable networks and news outlets report on election night are unofficial results from counties tallying the votes in real time. We’re accustomed to trusting the trajectory of these unofficial tallies because they are mostly comprised of ballots cast in person.

At least eight counties won’t begin counting mail-in ballots until Nov. 4, according to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. The mayor of Philadelphia — the bedrock of the state’s Democratic support — issued an open letter Monday calling for voters to be patient given that “getting a tally of mail-in ballots will easily take several days.”


Election Day results could show Trump with an initial lead on election night only to shift toward Biden as more mail ballots are counted.

Nov. 3 is just the beginning

For weeks, President Trump and his allies have been laying the groundwork to challenge the results of the election if he loses. In the final days of his campaign, and with an increased focus on Pennsylvania, he has repeated calls to limit vote counting that spills into the days after the election.

“Hopefully, the few states remaining that want to take a lot of time after Nov. 3 to count ballots, that won’t be allowed by the various courts,” he told reporters Wednesday in Nevada. Two days later, he tweeted: “The Election should end on November 3rd, not weeks later!”

No state has ever reported final results on election night, nor are they legally expected to. If the tallies froze at midnight, after only a handful of hours of counting, many valid mail-in and in-person ballots would not make the cut.

By sowing distrust in the voting process, Trump seems to be setting the stage to launch postelection legal battles in Pennsylvania, where Biden’s margin of victory could be so slim that court rulings on select ballots could swing the outcome.

Last week, the US Supreme Court let stand a decision to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day. The court on Wednesday refused Republicans' second request to hear the case before Nov. 3, but left open the possibility for postelection litigation. Trump has promised to pursue an aggressive legal strategy to invalidate the ballots. If the case comes before the court again postelection, opinions from conservative justices suggest they would vote to throw the ballots out.


Another possible showdown could occur should vote counting and legal battles continue into December. If Pennsylvania has no clear result before Dec. 8, the deadline for states to appoint presidential electors, the Republican-led state Legislature could simply appoint electors, who would likely cast their votes for Trump.

So is the candidate who loses Pennsylvania toast?

Not quite toast. There are paths to an electoral college victory without Pennsylvania for both candidates, though the road is much harder for Trump should he lose the state than it would be for Biden.

Trump only has a 2 percent chance of reelection if he loses in Pennsylvania, according to FiveThirtyEight, the polling analysis website. Conversely, Biden would maintain a 30 percent chance of winning the Electoral College if he lost Pennsylvania.

A win without Pennsylvania would likely not bring the landslide that Democrats hope for (and that some argue is necessary, to quell legal disputes by Trump), but Biden could still be victorious without the support of his birth state.

Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her @hannaskrueger.