Why Pennsylvania is the battleground Joe Biden hoped he wouldn’t have to fight for

The 2020 election hinges on a state in which the Democrats have an uncertain foothold, and where legal battles over postal voting are being mounted.

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The Biden campaign had long hoped for a landslide that would make Pennsylvania unnecessary to its overall victory, but that has not materialised.

A couple of hours after the polls closed, it became clear Biden was unlikely to win Florida, and that other corners of the Sun Belt also looked tight. This means, as many analysts projected, the heated 2020 presidential election is coming down to the former industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

“Surveys overestimated support for Biden,” says Daniel Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “It looks like he developed just enough support to get over the line in Wisconsin and Michigan. I’m surprised, but not shocked.”

As the fifth largest state in America by population, Pennsylvania has 20 electoral college votes, a potentially decisive sum. On Tuesday afternoon, the New Statesman’s election tracker put Joe Biden's chances of winning there at 76 per cent.

But Donald Trump's 2016 victory in Pennsylvania was a surprise: the state voted Democrat in six previous elections. The president has spent the weeks leading up to this year's election claiming, with no evidence, that the mail-in vote in Pennsylvania would be rigged against him and that the result should be decided on Tuesday night.

On Sunday, he told reporters: “As soon as that election is over, we're going in with our lawyers. I don't think it's fair that we have to wait a long period of time after the election.”

Democrats had hoped that a blowout victory for Biden in states such as Florida and North Carolina would allow them to secure victory without giving Republicans the opportunity to challenge mail-in votes in states such as Pennsylvania. Instead, Trump pulled ahead in many south-eastern states, enshrining the importance of the Rust Belt region that decided the 2016 race.

[See also: Will Donald Trump hold on to Pennsylvania?]

This year, the results will be murky for a disquieting period, prolonging an already acrimonious race. Much of this comes down to the fact American democracy depends on electoral rules that vary wildly between the states.

In states such as Florida, which have a long tradition of voting by mail, the results were declared quickly, because vote-counting begins far in advance of election day. Pennsylvania, however, only started allowing mass mail-in voting this year and does not have the mechanisms in place to rapidly process a very high volume of postal ballots. Officials could not begin counting until 7am on Tuesday. This means that the results for Pennsylvania may not be finalised for days. The same is true for Michigan and Wisconsin, the other two states that surprised observers when Trump took them in 2016.

“We just don’t even know – there was no [result] last night and there probably won’t be until Thursday or Friday,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political consultant in the state. “This was something that was anticipated and feared.”

At around 10pm (EST) on Tuesday night, Philadelphia announced that many of its mail-in ballots would not be reported until the following morning. Throughout the state, counties in which a majority of residents had voted by mail – and which, as a result, were expected to vote Democrat – were not able to fully process their results on Tuesday.

Republicans quickly attempted to ensure that their margins in the mail-in count would be narrowed. In Pennsylvania, for example, mail-in ballots must be sent in two envelopes to ensure secrecy. Concerned that many votes would be rejected simply because they weren't aware of the need for an extra envelope, the Democratic secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, had attempted to inform Pennsylvania residents if their vote had been invalidated, giving them an opportunity to obtain a corrective ballot on polling day, but on Tuesday afternoon, Republicans filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court to challenge that process.

However, it is unclear how many of these votes there actually are, and experts say that lawsuits have not, historically, tended to disqualify substantial numbers of votes. “A lot of these lawsuits will be worth little more than the paper they were printed on,” says Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant from Pennsylvania.

Democrats still have strong hopes of winning Pennsylvania. Biden has outperformed Hillary Clinton in many of the counties that have already reported results. In Lackawanna County, where Biden’s childhood home of Scranton is located, he won by almost 10,000 votes, more than doubling Hillary Clinton's 2016 margin. Major Democratic strongholds such as Philadelphia, its suburbs and Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh is located) still have many votes left to be reported.

But there could be a victory for Trump here. He has performed better in many rural Pennsylvania counties than he did in 2016, while the longed-for Democratic wave in Philadelphia – where progressives had hoped to run up huge numbers of votes, as they did in 2008 – failed to materialise. Meanwhile, the heavily Republican York County still had many votes left to be tallied.

“I think Biden is going to end up winning Pennsylvania, and maybe he won’t even end up needing the state if everything else left goes his way,” said Nicholas. “Both sides pumped up their turnout and the big trends are that Democrats are doing well in suburbs, while Trump does better with rural areas. But there are more suburban voters than rural ones.”

In Pennsylvania, the result may not be known for some time, but the nightmare scenario that the Biden campaign was so desperate to avoid has already materialised.

[See also: Why Joe Biden's hopes in the US 2020 election rest on suburban whites]

This article was updated at 1830 GMT on 4 November 2020 to include new quotes.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for City Monitor.

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