What's next in the Pa. special election ballot fight

Pennsylvania’s contentious House special election still doesn’t have an official winner nearly a week later. 

Democrat Conor Lamb, who has a lead of roughly 600 votes over Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, has declared victory in the race for the Pittsburgh-area seat. A Democratic win in the district would represent an embarrassment for Republicans in what should be a safe GOP seat — Trump carried it by 20 points in 2016. 

But while some news outlets have declared Lamb the winner, neither the state nor The Associated Press has called the race.


Meanwhile, Saccone isn’t backing down as Republicans float the possibility of a recount or a lawsuit.

Here’s what will happen next and how Pennsylvania will ultimately decide a winner.

Count the ballots

As of Friday, officials have not yet finished counting all of the provisional and military ballots. Still, even if Saccone won every one of the remaining uncounted ballots in the district’s four counties, there do not appear to be enough outstanding votes to put him ahead

Allegheny County has 128 provisional ballots and 99 military ballots, while Westmoreland County has about 20 provisional and 23 military ballots, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Washington County and Greene County have no more outstanding ballots, according to election officials there. 

Some of those votes may not be valid — it’s possible that someone voted for a candidate not on the ballot, or that someone from outside the district attempted to vote in the race.

But even if they’re all valid, that number still represents far below the amount Saccone would need to win.

The final counting of those ballots began on Friday, and could last until Tuesday, when the military ballots are due.

During that counting process, county canvassing boards will audit the election to make sure that all ballots are accounted for and have been accurately recognized, according to Washington County elections director Larry Spahr.

Possible recount or legal challenge

After all of that work is done, the counties will offer a preliminary certification of the vote count and open up a five-day window for any challenges.

Pennsylvania election law’s automatic recount rule only applies to statewide races. But groups of voters can petition for a recount in the special election, as long as they file the request within that five-day window. The earliest that countdown could start is on Wednesday, after all the military ballots come back.

Republicans have already requested that counties place their ballots and voting machines under lock and key to prepare for a potential recount. If a court authorizes a recount, then the schedule will be up to the courts.

Republicans have also raised the possibility of a legal challenge over potential voting irregularities. 

One source familiar with the process told The Hill that Republicans are concerned about reports of a GOP attorney being kicked out of overseeing absentee ballot counts, possible miscalibration of touch-screen voting machines in Allegheny County, and claims that the Pennsylvania secretary of State’s new website prompted confusion with the impending congressional district changes. 

Saccone’s campaign has already sent a letter to Allegheny County declaring an objection to a campaign attorney being temporarily barred from watching the vote counts on election night, and called for the county to promise that the lawyer will not be barred from future counts.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee is gearing up for a challenge by buying Facebook ads asking Republican voters if they experienced polling irregularities when they voted.

Recounts rarely move the margins by a significant amount. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis after the 2016 presidential race found that the average vote swing in the 27 statewide recounts between 2000 and 2015 was just 282 votes. With an even smaller pool of votes at stake in Pennsylvania, it’s unlikely a recount could find enough incorrectly tabulated votes for Saccone to win.

It’s hard to predict how Saccone and the GOP would fare with a lawsuit, but it could be a costly and long process.

Candidates keep running

Whatever happens in the ballot count, Lamb and Saccone have to move on to the next race — a May primary for the November election. While Tuesday’s election occurred under old district lines, the next round of elections will take place under new lines drawn by the state Supreme Court that carved up the district Lamb and Saccone recently battled to represent.

The court split the Pittsburgh suburbs largely into two districts: a conservative district to the south, which includes the majority of the current district, and a more moderate district to the north.

Lamb is expected to run in the northern district, the new 17th District. That district is far friendlier for Democrats than the district he looks poised to win in the special election  — the Cook Political Report rates the new 17th District as a toss-up.

Lamb will be the favorite to advance out of the primary to face off against Rep. Keith RothfusKeith James RothfusLobbying world Conor Lamb gets 2020 challenger touted by Trump The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority MORE (R-Pa.), who also lives in the district. 

Saccone is expected to run in the southern district, the new 14th District, which is even more conservative than the old district where he just finished running.

Saccone’s lackluster performance on Tuesday could inspire a GOP primary challenger. But it’s unclear whether another candidate can file the 1,000 signatures required by next week’s deadline to qualify for the GOP primary there. 

Regardless of how the special election vote count goes, then, the candidates have to keep on running if they want to be in Congress in January 2019.