A Historic Year In Politics For Pennsylvania: 2020 In Review

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Justin Heinze
·12 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

PENNSYLVANIA — 2020 was extraordinary for Pennsylvania for dozens of reasons, but not the least of which was the fact that the state took center stage in national politics for almost the entire calendar year.

From the pandemic, mail-in ballots, a lengthy primary and general election campaign, all the way down to a bitter and seemingly endless fight in the courts, it was a historic time for Pennsylvania politics.

Here's a glance back at the political highlights of an unprecedented year for the Keystone State:

Battleground rumblings

From the moment President Donald Trump won the 2016 election over Hillary Clinton, largely due to his victory in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, observers were pointing to the state as a focal point for the 2020 race.

And for four years leading into 2020, that's exactly what it was. Democrats were all too cognizant of the fact that Trump had won by just 44,000 votes, and they knew that the next presidency could be determined by the whims of a small number of people in Pennsylvania.

Act 77

Understanding how Pennsylvania persisted at the forefront of conversations about the future of the nation through the end of 2020 is at least in part due to a seemingly noncontroversial bill passed through the state legislature in Oct. 2019.

Act 77, known as the "no excuse mail-in voting" bill, allowed Pennsylvanians to cast ballots by mail without providing a specific reason.

At the time, the bill had broad bipartisan support. Gov. Wolf signed it into law, calling it "the most significant improvement to Pennsylvania's elections in more than 80 years." But it first passed through the Republican-dominated legislature, and it was not a controversial point. Republican leaders, in fact, praised the plan as needed change.

"Today's election modernization plan is probably the most historic reform bill we've done, not only in my time, but in decades," Republican State Sen. Jake Corman, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, said at the time.

In addition to eliminating the "excuse" requirement for mail-in voting, Act 77 also extended voter registration times, and authorized a $90 million bond to help counties fund the purchase of new voting systems with a paper trail.

With the primary race in full swing, the pandemic arrives

In early March, national headlines were still laser-focused on the intense battle for the Democratic nomination for president between Biden and Bernie Sanders. At the time, it appeared possible that the Pennsylvania primary could be critical in determining the nominee. This would have presented a very rare situation, as the late-April timing of the primary, long after Super Tuesday, typically makes Pennsylvania irrelevant.

"Usually we're an afterthought in terms of presidential primaries," Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of Muhlenberg College Institute of Public in Allentown, told Patch in early March. "This year, Pennsylvania not only will be on the primary map, we'll actually be a crucial state."

Days later, the pandemic changed everything, forever.

At the time, it was easy to forget or overlook the timing of the passage of Act 77 just months before. With the primaries just weeks away on April 28, people suddenly had a reason to vote by mail.

But on March 25, rising COVID-19 cases across a stunned state led the Pennsylvania state legislature to pass a bill postponing the primary until June 2. The legislation, Senate Bill 422, was unanimously passed in both the state house and state senate.

The bill also permitted counties to consolidate polling locations, so that fewer places would be exposed to groups of voters.

At the time, just 11 deaths and 1,127 cases of the virus had been reported in Pennsylvania.

A historic primary

The once-contentious Democratic primary was no longer a race by the time the Pennsylvania primary rolled around on June 2, with Biden having the nomination in hand.

Health officials urged residents to cast votes by mail, citing the need to limit crowds at the polls and prevent the spread of coronavirus. Voters complied: a record number of nearly one million voters statewide applied for and returned mail-in ballots.

Moving to only mail-in ballots was considered, but it was determined not to be feasible. Voters with certain disabilities are unable to vote by mail without assistance, and there were fears that too many residents simply would not be aware of how to vote by mail.

However, the primary did not go off without a hitch. It was later revealed that more than 37,000 mail-in ballots were rejected. This was due to errors include missing signatures, signatures which did not match the one on record, or a ballot simply being sent in too late.

Republicans in Pennsylvania began to turn against mail-in ballots around the time of the primaries, right as President Trump began condemning the process. Early complaints from Republican Committees in some counties indicated that a number of ballots were mailed with incorrect instructions, and that some voters received incorrect ballots.

GOP earns huge gains in voter registrations

As the pandemic raged and thousands died, the long and virulent campaign between Trump and Biden began.

Biden had large leads in the polls from the beginning, from the summer through the night before Election Day, both in Pennsylvania and nationwide. His leads were consistently larger than the polling leads Clinton had enjoyed over Trump before her 2016 defeat.

Due to coronavirus precautions, Democrats did not go door to door in Pennsylvania for most of the summer, saying it was irresponsible. But the GOP said they thought they could do it safely, so they did. And it paid off: from June 2 through Oct. 2, the GOP registered twice as many new voters as Democrats, even turning thousands of voters from Democratic to Republican registrations. Republicans earned 135,619 new voters in that time frame, compared to the Democrats' 57,985 votes.

While the pandemic and their different strategic responses certainly played a role, this was a continuation of an ongoing trend. From Nov. 2019 to June 2020, Republicans had out-registered Democrats 44,965 to 32,829.

Republican observers saw it as a sign that once again, the polls were not to be trusted: Trump would win PA.

Days after these statistics became public, the Biden campaign reversed course and began canvassing door to door.

Early court battles

As the election drew nearer, Pennsylvania's long-forecasted importance became clearer and clearer. Anti-mail-in voting rhetoric, largely driven by President Trump, intensified. Weeks and months before the election, the seeds of doubt were sown.

Yet no one could predict the truly bizarre nature of the chaos to come.

In mid-September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state's mail-in ballot deadline could be extended by three days, from Nov. 3 to Nov. 6. The court cited the need to "reduce voter disenfranchisement resulting from the conflict between the Election Code and the current USPS delivery standards."

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar pushed for an even longer extension, noting the millions of mail-in ballots that were expected.

Republicans sought to eliminate the extension, and the case ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court in October. The highest court in the land was split 4-4 on whether to take the case, which upheld the state court's original ruling.

The election begins weeks before Election Day

Millions of mail-in ballots began to be sent out in the weeks before Election Day. By Oct. 27, 57 percent of 3.02 million ballots had already been cast in Pennsylvania.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of mail-in ballots requested are from Democrats. The vast percentage of these ballots came from Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, the two most heavily populated and heavily Democratic counties in the state.

Preparation for Election Day

With tensions rising ahead of Nov. 3, the state prepared itself for every possibility. There were concerns noted in the weeks and months leading up to the day that the 2020 vote count could send the state into chaos, lawsuits, and civil unrest.

"Naked ballots" drew widespread attention as some Democratic officials urged the state to change the law requiring the use of second secrecy envelope. One Philadelphia official predicted this could contribute to confusion and chaos "the likes of which we have not seen since Florida in 2000." She was right.

Summer concerns about the USPS funding crisis also persisted into the fall.

A multi-agency task force comprised of emergency responders from both the state and federal level was organized to respond to any unrest. The group is made up of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, Pennsylvania State Police, the National Guard, U.S. Homeland Security, the FBI, a cybersecurity team, and more. Gov. Wolf said its formation had been years in the making.

Officials urged everyone to "take a breath and be calm" following Election Day, as they knew that tabulation could take hours or days, and it could be some time until final results were known.

Trump narrows the gap in the 11th hour

While Biden had long held a significant polling lead in Pennsylvania, Trump made sudden gains in the final days before Election Day, according to an average of numerous polls from around the country.

By Oct. 21, Trump had halved Biden's lead from 7 points to 4.2 points, an aggregate of polls taken that week from RealClearPolitics showed.

That gap was narrowed even further in the final polls before Nov. 3, putting Biden's lead within the margin for error. The state was officially a tossup.

Election Day...becomes Election Week

On Election Day, Trump had an early lead over Biden, though the process of counting mail-in ballots had just begun.

As the ballots were counted and Trump's lead dwindled, he intensified baseless claims that mail-in ballots were fraudulent.

Even before Election Day was over, lawsuits had already begun to be filed in Pennsylvania. Republican candidate for U.S. Congress Kathy Barnette was among the first to sue, claiming Montgomery County had illegally alerted voters of ballot errors, allowing them to fix issues and return them.

Despite the uncertainty in Pennsylvania and across the nation as Election Day ended, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said there had no been no major incidents of fraud or unrest throughout the day.

In days after the election, Prominent Republican leaders in Pennsylvania condemned Trump's unfounded allegations of voter fraud, saying his his remarks were "very hard to watch" and "not substantiated."

Philly and PA put Biden over the top

Some observers called Philadelphia the most important city in the world on Election Night and the following days, as mail-in ballots from the heavily Democratic area ultimately helped Biden narrow the gap and pull ahead of Trump to win the state's 20 electoral votes.

As people had been forecasting for years, the Keystone State was the final straw that determined the course of the entire election. Once it became clear that Biden had won Pennsylvania on the Saturday following Election Day, news organizations around the country were confident enough to call Biden the winner of the White House and the President-elect.

Biden defeated Trump by a tally of 3,459,923 to 3,378,263 in Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press.

The court battles begin

The election itself, however, was just the beginning.

Biden's declaration of victory on Nov. 7 sparked a barrage of lawsuits from Republicans at both the state and federal level in Pennsylvania that would continue until the Electoral College finally met for its vote more than a month later, on Dec. 14.

In a lengthy legal filing in federal court that Democrats said gave no evidence, the Trump campaign claimed on Nov. 10 that Pennsylvania violated the law in conducting the 2020 election.

The suit alleged in-person voters were held to scrutiny and security that mail-in voters were not. The suit also stated that Republican ballot watchers were not allowed close enough access to watch the ballots being counted.

The lawsuit made mention of Democrat-run counties as being the culprit for the bulk of these issues, and the suit was filed against the board of elections in seven places: Philadelphia, Montgomery, Allegheny, Chester, Centre, Delaware and Northampton counties. Boockvar was also named.

In the two weeks to follow, numerous lawyers representing the Trump campaign on the case backed out, with representatives for the high-profile law firms reportedly balking at arguing a challenge to the election results.

This led to Rudy Giuliani himself taking the reins on the case, which culminated in a six hour hearing in Williamsport on Nov. 17. Under intense questioning from Judge Matthew W. Brann about the merits of the case, Giuliani said "this is not a fraud case." Just hours earlier in his opening remarks, Giuliani argued issues in the state were emblematic of "widespread, nationwide voter fraud."

The case was dismissed, appealed, and dismissed again days later.

At the same time as the Williamsport hearing was going on, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled separately, 5-2, that the Philadelphia Board of Elections had, in fact, not violated the Election Code in keeping poll watchers distant from the ballot counting process.

Do mess with Texas

But Republicans were not done. While still looking for ways to get the claims in the original Pennsylvania lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court, other states joined the fight.

It began with Texas filing a lawsuit against Pennsylvania and several other battleground states, saying they'd compromised the election. "By ignoring both state and federal law, these states have not only tainted the integrity of their own citizens' vote, but of Texas and every other state that held lawful elections," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. "We now ask that the Supreme Court step in to correct this egregious error."

Texas was joined by 17 other states days later. The case, called "legally laughable" by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, was dismissed in short order on Dec. 11.

With these last gasp efforts and even more appeals exhausted in the days and hours before Dec. 14, the Pennsylvania Electoral College finally met to cast its votes for Biden.

This article originally appeared on the Montgomeryville-Lansdale Patch