PITTSBURGH — Outside a former metalworks warehouse on the north side of the city, it’s around-the-clock news coverage, speculation, misinformation, litigation, and anxiety about Pennsylvania’s election results.
Inside, it’s all about the count.
A sea of black totes containing already scanned ballots spreads across one side of the warehouse, under the guard of several armed county law enforcement officers. On the other side of the building, 30 workers scan ballots nonstop, processing about 13,000 an hour. And watching over them from inside a large rectangular pen are representatives of both campaigns.
“I know it’s tough for people to wait and people are frustrated by the wait," said Allegheny County Solicitor Andy Szefi. "I would ask that people be patient. We knew going into this process that it wasn’t going to be done yesterday or today because of that extension, and that’s just where we are now. We’re just living in the reality that we knew was coming.”
In warehouses and offices all across Pennsylvania on Wednesday, workers counted mail ballot after mail ballot, steadily processing and counting them as the vote totals ticked ever higher and higher. Despite all the attention to the state’s results — still too early to call for the presidential race as of late in the evening — county elections officials said they were just trying to do their jobs.
“I’m really focused on just getting the count right and getting it done, and making sure that it’s as accurate as we can make it and every vote is counted,” said Bob Harvie, the Bucks County commissioner who chairs the county elections board. “I’ve told people, I don’t even want to know results … I’ve literally kind of sequestered myself from the news because it doesn’t help me focus on getting the job done.”
So while Tuesday had been an all-day scramble to respond to various mistakes and mishaps — the result of thousands of people coming together, without a dress rehearsal, to run a complex system — Wednesday was all about just following through on the plans for counting ballots.
There were no voters to worry about having the right information, no poll workers to worry about having enough training, no polling places to worry about stocking with enough supplies.
Just stacks and stacks of ballots and a plan to count them.
“At this point, we’re just extremely focused on getting this process done,” said Bill Turner, acting elections director for Chester County. As for pressure from the outside world, he said: “We’re just honestly so busy we don’t have a lot of time.”
They’re well aware of the stakes. They were reminded by every worried call from a voter, every angry email, every confused, or anxious voter lining up at their doors.
“There is a terrible lot of pressure to get this done — if not external, then internal," said Marybeth Kuznik, elections director in Armstrong County “Everybody wants to get this done. We understand it, but we don’t want to rush it. We want to make sure they’re right.”
That’s their ultimate commitment, elections directors said: Getting the vote right.
So over and over, county elections officials across Pennsylvania said the same thing Wednesday: They’re not thinking about who’s winning, or about all the eyes on Pennsylvania. They’re busy counting votes.
“What’s important is to make sure everybody’s ballot gets counted, and that’s what we’re focused on, 100%,” said Thad Hall, elections director for Mercer County, which did not begin counting mail ballots until Wednesday because Hall wanted to ensure his staff could focus on in-person operations Tuesday. “The pressure I feel is, ‘Did I make sure everybody’s ballot was counted appropriately?’ ”
Unlike the day before, when they were busy putting our fires, Wednesday was all about following the plans they’d spent weeks and months sketching.
For months, elections officials had prepared to pull off the most challenging election they’ve ever run. They prepared new voting machines, built a new vote-by-mail system, opened satellite offices for a new form of “early voting” using mail ballots, and trained thousands of new poll workers on new laws and procedures.
"Every day felt like Election Day for the three weeks leading up to Election Day,” said Al Schmidt, one of the three Philadelphia city commissioners who run elections. “Here’s how the math would work out: In the lead-up to Election Day, it was 90% of our attention was on mail-in ballots and 10% on preparation for Election Day. On Election Day, it was 90% mail-in ballots and 90% on executing Election Day. Then it kind of rebalances back.”
Reporters from all across the globe idled down the hall as Schmidt talked. Across the region, protesters demanded ballots be counted quickly and fairly. In court, parties and campaigns fought over which ballots can be counted. On social media, people shared false claim after false claim.
But in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, workers in yellow safety vests made their way through bin after bin full of ballots.
It’s not sexy. It’s not the high drama of Election Day.
It’s just the job, Schmidt said.
“It’s a very mundane process,” he said. “It’s very peaceful and calming and just mechanical in how it functions, with everybody doing their part to count those ballots.”