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The winners of this year’s local races will run Pa.’s 2024 election, and the stakes are high

The local officials Pa. elects this year will run the 2024 elections. They’ll be responsible for certifying the results.

Workers process Philadelphia mail ballots to be counted in the 2020 election.
Workers process Philadelphia mail ballots to be counted in the 2020 election.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

This year’s local races will determine how Pennsylvania runs its 2024 presidential elections.

Counties, not the state, run elections — and the county boards of elections that certify results are on the ballot this year for the first time since the 2020 presidential race.

If they choose to contest those results, local officials can use their individual counties to hold the entire state’s results hostage.

The act of certification was once a routine ministerial task. But with the rise of election denialism and the mainstreaming of once-extreme conspiracy theories since former President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his 2020 loss, county-level certification has emerged as a key vulnerability in the electoral system.

“The unsubstantiated challenges to the validity of the 2020 election not only spurred citizens to storm the Capitol on January 6th, but it has also gained traction in some local government offices to cast doubt on other election results when they do not align with a desired outcome,” said Tammy Patrick, CEO for programs at the Election Center, a Texas-based nonprofit that is also the National Association of Election Officials.

More than a dozen Pennsylvania elections officials interviewed by The Inquirer said the changing role of local elections boards in recent years — including becoming more high-profile and politicized — has created new risks. Some warned of rising electoral danger in their own and neighboring counties, including election deniers running for office.

“You’ve got the possibility of very public displays — not certifying, paralyzing the state and possibly the country after an election,” said one county elections director who, like most interviewed for this article, was granted anonymity to speak candidly about a topic that can jeopardize their jobs. “But then you’ve got the stuff they’re doing the other 364 days a year. Who are they giving the keys to the voter registration office? Who are they giving the password to the rest of the software?”

The threats are not theoretical.

Efforts to stop certification have already occurred in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and legal fights have tangled up the state’s results for weeks and months. A handful of individual county commissioners in 2020 voted against certifying the results of the presidential election, and some of them are running for reelection. There are also election skeptics and deniers who — having organized in recent years — are running for office for the first time, raising the possibility of conspiracy theorists supervising local election offices and certification.

“People need to understand that the people they elect this year are going to determine the quality of the elections they have in 2024 and 2026,” said Thad Hall, elections director for Mercer County.

Hall said he has an extremely supportive elections board and doesn’t worry about his own county. But he and others warned of the very real dangers of electing people who won’t support the running of free and fair elections.

The board of elections needs to be willing to both directly support the elections office and also insulate it from any political pressure or interference, Hall said. “If you don’t have those people, it becomes really problematic.”

Pennsylvania chooses its elections officials this year. It used to be a small part of the job.

The actual work of running elections is handled by each county’s full-time elections office: non-elected county staffers who are hired specifically to run elections. But the ultimate authority is the board of elections, which in nearly all counties is made up of the three county commissioners.

In a few counties, the elections board is made up of or appointed by members of the county council. And in Philly, three city commissioners are directly elected to run elections as a full-time job.

With the advent of mail voting, the elections board now has many more decisions to make than in the past, one county elections official said: which mail ballots to accept or reject, for example, or the number and location of polling places, drop boxes, and satellite offices.

“We’ve got 67 different ways of handling [elections], and a voter that’s enfranchised for doing one thing somewhere may be disenfranchised doing the same exact thing somewhere else,” the official said. “And it all comes down to who the election board is — which exactly no one has ever thought of before when they went into the booth to vote.”

The ultimate power of Pa. boards of elections: Certify vote totals

Timely certification of local results is one of the board’s most important responsibilities. The vote totals are then sent to the Pennsylvania Department of State, which compiles them and certifies them at the state level.

State law requires certification within 20 days of Election Day. By then, the winners have generally long been known, and certification was uncomplicated and uncontroversial in the past.

That’s changed since 2020. Commissioners are increasingly using the certification vote as an opportunity to deny a result or question how the election was run. One county elections director described the ongoing efforts to undermine certification as a “death of a thousand small cuts.”

“There’s ongoing attempts to turn certification into a debate — a debate about which ballots do you count, which lawsuits do you follow. It’s now a debate, an argument, a negotiation,” the official said.

If a county board of elections votes against certifying its votes, the state has no direct power to compel certification.

In last year’s primary, for example, a handful of counties refused to count undated mail ballots in their certified results; the Department of State disagreed and there was no way for either side to break the stalemate.

Instead, the state sued the counties in state court and eventually won. By the time the primary election results were certified, it was more than three months after election day.

A single county, then, on the votes of two of the three county commissioners, can refuse to certify its election results or certify them in a way inconsistent with the rest of the state. Until a court forces them to act, they can hold up the entire state’s results for weeks or even months.

If that occurred during a tight election in which Pennsylvania plays a role — such as next year’s presidential race — delaying the state’s certification could mean keeping the country waiting.

“If we do elect people who do not believe in elections, on either side of the aisle, they can vote to not certify,” said one county elections official who is warily watching the field of candidates. “There are avenues to force certification, but it’s a long, drawn-out process. That’s a huge expense to taxpayers and the state but also just delays everything.”

Commissioners in some Pa. counties have already voted against certifying election results in the past

In 2020, a few individual commissioners voted against certification in Pennsylvania, though they were overridden by the two other votes on their boards.

In suburban Philadelphia, for example, Montgomery County’s Republican commissioner, Joe Gale, voted against certification while making false, broad claims about the integrity of mail voting.

In Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, Republican council member Sam DeMarco voted against certification and later signed on as an alternative elector for Trump in the Electoral College.

Both are running for reelection.

DeMarco said his vote against certification was an act of protest because of a dispute over undated mail ballots. He described it as a matter of principle, saying he knew the two Democrats on the board would vote to certify.

“I knew the election was going to be certified, there were two Democrats and one Republican. That wasn’t a concern, but I was protesting,” DeMarco said. If one of the Democrats would have voted against certification, he said, “I would have changed my vote.”

Gale said he’s voted against certification of every election since the 2020 primary because he believes the state’s mail voting law is unconstitutional. (A lawsuit making that argument succeeded in a lower court, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the law.)

Some elections officials are more concerned about new candidates who have risen to local prominence through their pursuit of conspiracy theories and election skepticism. In Washington County, for example, one county commissioner candidate, Ashley Duff, has been among the most outspoken local election deniers and touts her endorsement by Mike Lindell, the My Pillow founder who has become a prominent election denier. (In response to emailed questions, Duff shared a quotation from Kamala Harris about paper ballots and urged The Inquirer to watch a documentary about cyber threats to American elections.)

There are also the everyday threats to election administration, such as rising political pressure

Because the county commissioners run local government, their power of election administration extends to their other powers — especially, several county officials said, to the amount of funding and other support they provide.

“What is the election budget going to be, how many staff are we going to hire? OK, we’re required to send out mail-in ballots, but are we going to make sure we have enough staff to send out those mail-in ballots?” said Nathan Savidge, the former Northumberland County elections director who is now the county administrator and chief clerk. “Do you get an automatic letter opener? Do you get an automatic letter-folder? Return postage on mailing supplies? All those everyday things.”

Elections officials said commissioners used to be a lot more hands-off but have in recent years taken a much more active role in asking questions and shaping everyday policy.

When Trump lost the 2020 election, he called state elections officials in Georgia to push them to overturn the results. In Pennsylvania, he and his lawyers repeatedly called State Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), who was then the speaker of the state House.

“It’s a lot of political pressure, and I didn’t have that before,” one longtime elections official said. “It’s so different now. Everything’s different, it’s cutthroat, it’s just horrible.”