FILE - PA voting 11-8-2016

Voters line up to cast their ballots Nov. 8, 2016, in the 2016 general election in Mount Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania.

(The Center Square) – When the polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday across Pennsylvania, some 3 million residents will have already cast their vote.

It’s just one of many firsts for the state in this year’s contests. It’s the first general election with rules that allow mail-in voting for any reason and the first in more than a century to unfold during a pandemic.

It’s also unusual for Pennsylvania to find itself as the most coveted prize among swing states, with analysts left and right agreeing its 20 electoral votes could make or break either presidential candidate’s path to the White House.

“It’s hard to believe that we are now less than 24 hours away now,” Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told reporters Monday. “It’s been a journey getting to this point, and the next few days will be historic on every point."

The latest NBC/Marist poll released Monday shows former Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton native, with a five-point lead over President Donald Trump – with a 4.4 percent margin of error. Trump carried Pennsylvania in 2016 by fewer than 50,000 votes, the first Republican to do so since 1988.

It could be days, or weeks, before the nation knows if he’s pulled it off again, however, as the state’s inability to cobble together a deal on pre-canvassing rules means county election officials can’t begin processing absentee ballots until Election Day. 

With more than 75 percent of the 3 million ballots already returned – representing about one third of all registered voters in the state – poll workers will work to determine Pennsylvania’s results long after polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“In 2016, 266,208 people case civilian absentee ballots,” Boockvar said. “We are looking at 10 times as many mail in ballots as we had in 2016 and close to twice as many as we had in the primary." 

The delay also means contested down ballot races, including in the 1st and 10th congressional districts where Democrats hope to strengthen their majority in the House, may not be clear for some time. 

Gov. Tom Wolf pleaded for patience last week as the state works to tabulate results. He laments that he and legislative Republicans couldn’t agree on a suitable period for pre-canvasing ballots ahead of Election Day – a failure for which neither party accepts responsibility.

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.