Voting ballot: Absentee voting by mail with ballot envelope
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Donald Trump has not been shy about his strategy to win the 2020 election. After the polls close, he will sue to stop certain key states—like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—from counting absentee ballots. “We’re going in with our lawyers,” he said on Monday.

Republicans in Pennsylvania, which could ultimately decide the presidential contest, seem to have gotten the message. As of Monday, several GOP elections officials in the Keystone State said they would not count absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day, even though the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that Pennsylvania should count all ballots postmarked by Tuesday and received by Friday.

Ray D’Agostino, the GOP commissioner of Lancaster County, posted on Facebook that the county would set aside all of the ballots received after Tuesday—and explicitly said he would wait until a new ruling from the Supreme Court before tallying them. “Between Wednesday and Friday this week, mail ballots that came in Monday and Tuesday will be processed, and ballots received Wednesday through Friday with postmarks by 8 pm on Election Day (or no postmark) will be set aside until a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court or some other direction,” he wrote.

In Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania outside of Scranton, officials are doing the same thing. Kenneth Gould, a Republican member of the county’s Board of Elections, told The New Yorker that ballots received after Tuesday would not be included in the official vote count, preparing for potential litigation. “There’s no way for us to pull them out afterward, so we’re going to put them to the side,” he said.

Why would D’Agostino and Gould want to wait on another SCOTUS ruling when the high court has already issued one? It’s simple: Trump’s newly installed justice, Amy Coney Barrett, did not participate in the last decision, meaning Republicans are likely hoping the ruling could go another way the second time around.

The vote tally in these counties could prove key to Pennsylvania’s outcome. In 2016, Trump won Lancaster County by 137,914 votes to Clinton’s 91,091. He won the state by roughly 44,000 votes overall. In Luzerne County, Trump won by 26,000 votes four years ago, 78,688 to Clinton’s 52,451. In a very tight race, voter suppression in either place could be the difference between a Trump and Biden victory.

Nationally, Democrats have told pollsters that they plan to vote by mail in far greater numbers than do Republicans (in no small part because of Trump’s false claims that voting by mail leads to widespread fraud). That appears to be especially true in Pennsylvania, where 66% of the absentee ballots that have already been returned have been from Democrats, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Only 23% have been from Republicans. Mailed-in ballots, by their nature, take longer to process than in-person votes. That means that already returned votes will take time to tally. And many mail-in ballots haven’t been delivered to election offices yet.

Pennsylvania Republicans have been engineering a delay in absentee vote counting since the summer when they blocked legislation that would allow those ballots to be counted before Election Day. In states with a history of a large portion of citizens who vote from home, like in Florida and Ohio, absentee ballots are processed and counted as they are received.

Trump has said that voting should stop after Election Day. It’s an argument that completely ignores history—votes have been routinely counted in the days and weeks following Election Day for decades. Yet according to an Axios report, the president is planning to declare victory Tuesday night no matter what—banking on the possibility that he will be ahead in many states after in-person votes are tabulated but before all of the absentee votes have been counted, and the winner can actually be announced. Trump will then sue to stop further counting and hope the courts rule on his side, as he has indicated. And as these GOP elections officials have made clear, they have a plan to help him.

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a staff writer for Time magazine.