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Pennsylvania’s nightmare 2020 voting scenario — and how to prevent it

The experience of this month’s Pennsylvania primary election, coupled with Trump’s increasingly frequent false claims about mail voting, point to a troubling possibility in November.

Voters at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center on primary election day in Philadelphia on June 02. There were fewer polling locations across the city due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Voters at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center on primary election day in Philadelphia on June 02. There were fewer polling locations across the city due to the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

It’s Nov. 3, 2020. It’s been a long Election Day in Pennsylvania, with new voting machines causing confusion at some polling places, and the closure of others for public health reasons leading to long lines at locations still open. Meanwhile, a huge surge of mail ballots driven partly by coronavirus fears of voting in person means it’s going to take days to count them all and determine who won.

But President Donald Trump is already declaring victory.

Early, unofficial results make it look like he has won the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania in a landslide. But the election night results are incomplete, with most mail ballots not yet counted. And most Democrats voted by mail, while most Republicans voted in person.

Trump isn’t winning. His voters are just being counted first.

In the days after the election, as the populous and Democratic Philadelphia region counts its votes, the numbers shift in Joe Biden’s favor, and Trump begins to make false claims of voter fraud and election rigging — echoing conspiracy theories he has promoted for months.

One week after the election, votes are still being counted, lawsuits are being prepared, misinformation and partisan attacks are flying. And public trust in the legitimacy of the election is fading, fast.

None of this has happened yet. But the experience of this month’s Pennsylvania primary election, coupled with Trump’s increasingly frequent false claims about mail voting, show that it’s not only possible: Without policy changes before November, it is likely, elections officials and voting rights advocates say.

“We are definitely headed for this possibility, but it is not inevitable. It is something that we can — and have the responsibility to — avoid,” said Wendy R. Weiser, head of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “It will be a meltdown. It will be a disaster. But we can change it. And it will be if our political leaders don’t take steps now.”

A new Pennsylvania law allowing anyone to vote by mail, along with the pandemic, led to a massive volume of mail ballots in the June 2 primary. And the long process of counting them left numerous races without a declared winner for days.

The primary revealed those weaknesses — among others — in the electoral system that can still be addressed before November

“We can’t buy time back, but seriously... legislative fixes can change fundamental aspects of this,” said Lee Soltysiak, chief operating officer for Montgomery County and chief clerk of its elections board. “The sooner these decisions are made, or frankly the sooner they say they’re not going to do it, certainty is valuable. We’ll make it work, you know?”

Public trust can be fragile, especially in a time of strong political polarization. If people begin losing faith in the electoral system and its outcomes, the legitimacy of the government itself is at risk.

“The system is not only built on elections but on trust,” Weiser said. “And the outcomes of those elections lead to peaceful transitions of power.”

Here are some of the nightmare scenarios keeping elections officials and experts up at night — and how to prevent them.

Nightmare 1: Votes take days to count, leading to false claims of election rigging

Now that any Pennsylvania voter can use a mail ballot, it takes much longer to count votes than it used to.

With a mail ballot, elections workers have to confirm the validity of the vote, sort it into the right pile, open two different envelopes, and, finally, scan the ballot.

But Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow mail ballots to be opened until Election Day. Some counties, especially the smaller, more Republican ones, are able to count all their ballots on Election Day. Many are not. Philadelphia doesn’t start counting mail ballots until the day after the election because work that day is focused on in-person voting.

Most votes in the Philadelphia region weren’t even counted on the night of the primary because so many were cast by mail.

Pennsylvania’s election night results tend to be more favorable toward Republicans than the final tally, a phenomenon established by academics and known as the “blue shift.” That is highly likely to become even stronger in the fall, given the partisan divide seen in the primary: Most Democratic votes were cast by mail, while most Republican ones were cast in person.

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

If that holds up, the results we see on election night will be missing a large fraction of Democratic votes.

Experts and elections officials are particularly concerned Trump will make unfounded claims of election rigging and voter fraud. In 2018, Trump made false claims of fraud and warned of “election theft” as votes were counted in Florida and leads narrowed for the Republican candidates in closely watched races for governor and Senate. “An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected,” he said on Twitter. “Must go with Election Night!”

This year, he has made a series of false and unfounded claims about mail ballots.

How to prevent it: County elections officials generally agree they should be allowed to start opening or even counting mail ballots before Election Day, and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose department oversees elections, supports doing so as early as three weeks before. Pennsylvania’s state legislature would have to change the law for that to happen.

The time it takes to count mail ballots can also be shortened by purchasing or leasing equipment and by significantly increasing staffing.

False claims of election rigging may be impossible to avoid. Experts say public awareness campaigns are needed to reset expectations for when results will be in and explain how the system works.

“If I knew how to silence Trump, I would probably be Biden’s running mate, right?” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners. “How do we silence or overpower the voice of the president on all these social media platforms?”

Nightmare 2: Tens of thousands of voters are disenfranchised

Pennsylvania’s deadlines for requesting and returning mail ballots can be very tight.

Voters have until one week before an election to request a mail ballot, and mail ballots have to be returned by 8 p.m. Election Day, according to state law.

Elections officials warned before the primary that thousands or even tens of thousands of people would receive their mail ballots too late to mail back, and several court cases sought to change the deadlines.

Ultimately, tens of thousands of ballots arrived after the election day deadline, a troubling sign for November, when turnout could be much higher — perhaps double or more in some counties.

How to prevent it: State lawmakers should change the deadlines, many elections officials and advocates say. Some say the application deadline should be moved earlier; others say the return deadline should be pushed later; others call for a combination of both.

Counties also scrambled in the days before the primary to set up drop boxes for voters to hand-deliver their mail ballots. Those were heavily used, and officials hope to set up more of them for November.

Some counties are also hoping to set up offices where people can vote early by requesting a mail ballot in person. Those “early voting” sites would require equipment and staff, and there are strict requirements for eligible locations.

Nightmare 3: Chaos at the polls

There are a number of reasons why there could be confusion and chaos at the polls on Election Day:

Voting locations may change without people knowing. Counties have replaced voting machines in the last two years, and some voters will be encountering them for the first time. Problems with voting machines or poll books can delay voting and cause long lines, as they did in Philadelphia during the primary. And counties may not have enough poll workers, while new ones may not be trained well enough to troubleshoot problems.

“You do not want inadequate polling places to be perceived as roadblocks and barriers to deter voters,” said Donnell Drinks, election protection coordinator for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “You don’t want it to seem that it’s chaotic in nature.”

Philadelphia had 77% fewer polling places in the primary than in the election before; Montgomery County had 60% fewer. That was allowed under a one-time provision in an emergency law passed in March, but the challenges of polling places will remain in November.

During a pandemic in which older people are at heightened risk, elections officials don’t want to use senior centers as voting sites, some privately owned places are closed and even boarded up for weeks or months, and many locations are too small or otherwise unfit for social distancing.

Poll workers, meanwhile, are usually older than the general population, and some counties struggled to find enough people.

And concerns around voting machine failures and similar problems exist every election — but are heightened during high-turnout presidential elections.

How to prevent it: County elections officials have already begun planning their polling places and staffing, though the uncertainty around the coronavirus remains a challenge.

Elections officials said they need a major recruitment effort to bring in poll workers, especially young ones, and they need to find voting locations with owners who would be willing to allow voters to gather even during the height of a potential fall wave of COVID-19 cases.