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A year ago Philadelphia’s vote count decided the presidency, but also inspired conspiracies that live on today

A year after Philadelphia sat at the center of the political universe, the vote count that defied a president turned out to be just one step in the battle over voting, democracy and truth.

Protesters gathered at the Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 4, 2020, calling for every vote to be counted and a peaceful transition of power.
Protesters gathered at the Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 4, 2020, calling for every vote to be counted and a peaceful transition of power.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Inside, the Convention Center felt like a casino.

Exhausted election officials counting votes for nearly a week lost all sense of time, weather, and the outside world.

A fraught presidential race sat on the precipice with Philadelphia’s vote count poised as the final tipping point. Joe Biden edged closer and closer to victory, but Rudy Giuliani was heading to town in a last-ditch effort to undermine the count.

A frayed and anxious country watched, waited, and waited.

“The truth existed in those ballots,” said Al Schmidt, the lone Republican among Philadelphia’s three city commissioners, who oversee the city’s elections. “Everyone had already cast their votes, we had them in our hands. We simply needed to count them. So we’re running against the clock, against an effort to try to prevent us from counting our voters’ votes.”

They beat the clock. A new batch of votes was released minutes before Giuliani could speak, and news organizations called Pennsylvania, and the presidency, for Biden. Philadelphia streets filled with a raucous celebration and a sense, among Biden supporters, that democracy had held.

Yet looking back now, exactly one year after Philadelphia sat at the center of the political universe, the count that defied a president turned out to be just one step in the battle over voting, democracy, and truth, not a turning point. Donald Trump’s defeat didn’t suddenly restore democratic norms.

“We won a hard campaign fair and square. In a democracy, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but is that even true anymore?” said Brendan McPhillips, Biden’s campaign manager in Pennsylvania. “How are we supposed to advocate for things when one side just throws its hands up in the air and pretends any fairly won election didn’t happen?”

Ironically, Philadelphia’s extended vote count, long expected and unavoidable due to state law that barred early counting, also left open a lengthy window in which Trump and his allies drilled false claims into the public psyche — claims that still hold sway with many voters and GOP officials.

“That delay mattered a lot because it gave something that Trump could point to. He could say, ‘Look, I’m ahead, there’s a ballot dump,’” said Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

“The unique circumstances of the pandemic combined with a shameless demagogue who was not going to be dissuaded by contrary facts led to this combustible situation, and also led to the resiliency of these false claims.”

While 77% of Democrats now trust the election system “a lot” or “some,” only 49% of independents and 28% of Republicans feel the same, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released in late October (though there were no GOP objections to their strong results in Virginia and New Jersey last week).

Under continuing pressure from Trump, Republicans in Pennsylvania are undertaking a partisan review to dig up the elusive proof of major election irregularities. Trump is backing loyalists to replace election officials who defied his pressure to question or overturn results. And late last month he published a 600-word letter in the Wall Street Journal replete with lies and distortions about Pennsylvania’s 2020 results.

Referring to Biden’s margin of victory, Trump wrote: “In reality, 80,555 ballots are nothing when there is this much corruption or voter irregularities.”

‘Bad things happen’

Trump had made claims like that before a single vote was cast.

Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he declared in a September debate.

“They were very conspicuous in what they were doing, and they were looking to try to discredit or not count the votes of our voters in Philadelphia,” Schmidt said.

In September, the city commissioners, working with Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, ran tabletop exercises to prepare for various scenarios. “Pretty much every one of them came to fruition, unfortunately,” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the city commissioners.

Democrats deployed more than 5,500 poll watchers around the commonwealth, the party’s largest effort in the country, said Kay Yu, the Philadelphia attorney who organized it. There were 2,000 people on the ground in Philadelphia alone, said Adam Bonin, who headed Democrats’ legal work in the city.

“We had been preparing for this for months,” Bonin said.

On election night, Pennsylvania’s in-person vote favored Trump, as widely predicted, but there were more than two million mail ballots left to count. With Biden winning about 80% of them, it became clear he was well-positioned to overtake Trump’s advantage.

But it would take time.

Philadelphia had close to 375,000 mail ballots, nearly 20 times the previous record, thanks to the pandemic and a new law allowing anyone to vote by mail, said Seth Bluestein, Schmidt’s top deputy. Since ballots arrive in secrecy envelopes, that meant nearly 750,000 envelopes to open just to begin counting.

» READ MORE: How does a Republican lead on election night and still lose Pennsylvania? It’s called the ‘blue shift.’

And state law barred election officials from even opening envelopes before Election Day, effectively ensuring that the count would take much longer than usual and that the margins would change slowly but dramatically. Trump had discouraged his supporters from using mail ballots, so they heavily favored Biden.

“All of the conspiracy theories, all of the attacks on the integrity of the election, they are all tangentially related to not knowing the results on election night because of the mass of vote by mail ballots that we couldn’t even start reviewing” until Election Day, Bluestein said.

As election night turned to early morning, Trump falsely claimed he had won the election and called to stop counting millions of legitimate votes. His campaign specifically declared he had won Pennsylvania, though data already showed a good chance he had lost.

“It really felt like Philadelphia was under siege,” Schmidt said.

“Much of it was surreal,” he added. “Because what we were doing was very mundane. We were counting votes cast by our voters on or before Election Day and yet there were all these efforts to condemn what we were doing or stop us from what we were doing, which is to make democracy work.”

Outside, a protest-turned-dance party unfolded with Philadelphia’s manic intensity and offbeat energy. Trump and Biden supporters waved signs, sometimes shouting. There was a drumline. People danced in blue mailbox costumes, while inside the Convention Center’s staid halls, three shifts of 150 people opened envelopes and scanned ballots round the clock.

“There was no daylight, there was no natural light,” Deeley said. “The days and nights just ran together — all there was was the work.”

She slept eight hours between election night, Tuesday, Nov. 3, and that Friday.

Many GOP concerns, said Republican Josh Novotney, were grounded in distrust of the Democratic leaders in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court. Republicans argued that Democrats pushed the mail-voting rules well past the boundaries of state law and were “gaming the rules.”

“The goal was just to make sure it was a fair election,” said Novotney, a Philly GOP ward leader and lobbyist who chaired the party’s Election Day operations in the city.

One fierce point of contention was over a Supreme Court decision to count mail ballots if they arrived up to three days after Election Day and were postmarked by Election Day or had missing or illegible postmarks.

The election procedures, though, survived extensive litigation. And even the most controversial steps affected a relatively small number of votes that couldn’t change the outcome.

There were just 10,000 late-arriving ballots, for example, not the nearly 72,000 Trump claimed last week. And none of them were included anyway in Biden’s 80,000-vote victory.

Deeley, Schmidt, and even the Democratic attorneys said they had largely professional interactions with local GOP operatives watching the vote count inside the Convention Center. But outside, the Trump team lobbed fact-free accusations.

“It was particularly perverse” to hear that Republicans were barred from the counting room, Bluestein said, “when I am actually standing in front of them having a conversation with them at that exact moment.”

At the Philadelphia airport, Trump’s son Eric claimed ballots were found in drainage ditches, while Giuliani said ballots could be from Camden or Mars.

Not that Four Seasons

As Biden’s victory began looking certain, word got around on Nov. 7 that Giuliani was plotting a news conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Northeast Philadelphia, near an adult bookstore and a cremation center.

Schmidt pulled Bluestein aside and told him to release an update on counted votes before Giuliani spoke — knowing it would almost certainly provide the margin news organizations were waiting for to project a winner.

The release at roughly 11:20 a.m. showed Biden’s lead growing enough for news organizations to call the race. Giuliani’s event became a memorable side show.

Dancing erupted in the deep-blue city.

“It was just mayhem,” recalled Nikki Grant, an attorney with the Amistad Law Project who was trying to drive to a rally on Independence Mall. “The dance party that was happening spilled over to the entire city, and that was really special to witness.”

Inside the Convention Center, though, the rote work continued, as officials tried to count every vote, regardless of news projections. For a moment, Schmidt donned a surgical mask and a ball cap and ducked out a loading dock, just in time to see Philly Elmo emerging from a car. They took a selfie.

» READ MORE: The ‘blue shift’ in Pennsylvania meant a 14-point swing from Trump to Biden — for now

Lies and threats

In the end, Trump actually improved his showing in Philadelphia.

While Biden won a whopping 603,790 votes in the city, more than half of them by mail and more than even Barack Obama managed, Trump’s vote count grew by 22% over his 2016 run. Where Pennsylvania shifted most heavily against him was in the suburbs.

But the former president didn’t single out those areas. Instead, Hasen noted, he focused on heavily Black cities like Philly, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

A year later none of his fraud claims have been substantiated. The blizzard of Trump lawsuits in Pennsylvania focused on procedural matters and didn’t identify a single specific fraudulent vote. Numerous reviews and audits, including by Republicans, have validated the results. Trump’s own attorney general, Bill Barr, vouched for the soundness of the outcome.

» READ MORE: With the vote count now over, here’s how Pennsylvania broke for Joe Biden

But with a push from the presidency, a narrative took hold anyway.

After the count, Deeley had 24-hour security. Schmidt’s wife received an email naming their three children and saying they “will be fatally shot” unless he would “tell the truth.” Bluestein received anti-Semitic threats.

(A rare message of support came from a local union leader who offered to get a baseball bat and guard Schmidt’s home.)

Schmidt now sees a direct line between the falsehoods that spread that week and the violence that struck the U.S. Capitol two months later. During the count, two men drove from Virginia with an AR-style rifle and 160 rounds of ammunition and were arrested outside the Convention Center for carrying handguns without Pennsylvania permits.

“That’s where the chatter becomes real, when people are physically acting out based on what they believe to be true,” Schmidt said.

Some Republicans now running for governor or senator in Pennsylvania next year refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s victory. If they win, they could be in position to oversee the state’s handling of the 2024 election, or have a vote in Congress on certifying the next presidential results — a normally routine process that was challenged in January, including by nearly every Pennsylvania Republican in the U.S. House.

» READ MORE: First it was ‘fraud,’ then they just didn’t like the rules: How Pa. Republicans justified trying to overturn an election

Strong Republican showings last week in Virginia and New Jersey elections suggest there’s a path to success for GOP candidates who focus on schools and the economy and avoid conspiracies, though it’s unclear how many will take that approach.

Schmidt admitted surprise that after so long, the true results still fail to convince so many, including “good people.”

“It’s a lot easier to fool someone than convince someone that they’ve been fooled,” he said. He added, “It’s clear that our democracy is a lot more fragile than any of us ever thought, and it makes it all the more important that we fight back against these lies.”

Staff writers Julia Terruso and Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.