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Bucks County in battleground Pennsylvania braces for influx of mail-in ballots: "We didn't expect these numbers"

Pa. braces for increase of mail-in ballots
Pa. braces for increase of mail-in ballots 03:58

Pennsylvania is one of the most hotly contested states in the 2020 election. But, with seven weeks left in the campaign, the ballot still hasn't been finalized, due to a court challenge, and requests to vote by mail are soaring due to the coronavirus.

At the Bucks County election warehouse, voting equipment for all 304 precincts stretches wall to wall. All those machines won't get as much use as usual this year because fewer people will vote in person and more will participate by mail.

"It's a different world for everybody," said Bob Harvie, who chairs the Bucks County Board of Elections, charged with making election 2020 work amid a pandemic. Bucks County, outside of Philadelphia, is the fourth largest in Pennsylvania.

"We expected there to be more mail-in ballot applications, but we didn't expect these numbers and obviously the pandemic ramped everything up," Harvie told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett.

In 2016, the county had about 20,000 requests for absentee ballots. This year, it is expecting at least 200,000, possibly 250,000. 

Asked if the board of elections is prepared to process that many mail-in ballots, Harvie said the challenge will be "counting them as quickly as we can."

Bucks County is increasing its elections staff, from 10 to 25. It had four scanners to count absentee ballots and now has 10. And it is refurbishing an office to make room for the staff and machinery.

The county bought its new tabulation equipment from Clear Ballot, a company specializing in vote-by-mail technology.

"We've actually increased our customer base by 35% during the pandemic," said Clear Ballot Vice President of Marketing Hillary Lincoln. "Seventy-five percent of our Pennsylvania counties have had to scale their absentee equipment, so we've helped them do that." 

Of the 13 states expected to be competitive this fall, Pennsylvania is one of four that does not allow the processing of mail-in ballots before Election Day. Processing means opening envelopes, flattening ballots and preparing them to be scanned for counting. All that takes time. 

"Basically any kind of relief to that – that we could open any earlier – would really help us. If we had three days or three weeks, any time would really help," elections director Tom Freitag said.

The Pennsylvania legislature is debating whether to allow processing before Election Day, but without a change to state law, Bucks County expects to still be counting mail-in ballots after November 3.

"Certainly we want to be done – before – I would say within a week," Harvie said. Even with the best case scenario, it will take a few days, he said. 

If the race isn't close, the delay might not matter, but Bucks County went for Hillary Clinton by less than one percentage point in 2016, a competitive county in a competitive state with 20 electoral votes that could decide the election.

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