Pa. elections officials are bracing for another vote in a toxic environment: ‘Now everyone attacks’
After a year of Trump’s lies about a stolen election tearing at the country’s political fabric, anxiety is as high as ever for the people who run elections before polls open Tuesday.
This is supposed to be a low-key election. But there’s no such thing anymore for the people who actually run elections in Pennsylvania.
Yes, voter turnout drops significantly after a presidential race, as public interest dissipates and the stakes feel lower. And officials haven’t had to scramble to respond to changing election rules the way they did last year. But after a year of Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election tearing at the country’s political fabric, anxiety is as high as ever for local elections officials before polls open Tuesday, according to interviews with about a dozen of them.
They used to toil in obscurity for little pay or recognition. Now they’re targets. They continue to face anger and baseless accusations from voters and even other elected officials. The threats and harassment of last year have lessened, but they haven’t gone away.
And when the small technical or human errors that have long been a benign feature of American elections pop up, they brace themselves for it to be weaponized, spun, or just amplified in a way that erodes voter trust.
“It’s definitely different, and it’s not as fun as it used to be,” said Tim Benyo, the chief elections clerk for Lehigh County. “Now everyone attacks, and you’ve got to talk them off the ledge to try to get them to see how things really are.”
“I catch myself mentally preparing to see what fire I have to put out,” added Benyo, who’s been running Pennsylvania elections since 2008.
American elections are run at the local level, meaning it’s county officials who are caught on the front lines of the voting wars that have been engulfed by partisan politics. Officials from across Pennsylvania’s 67 counties — blue or red, big or small — said the job has become significantly more difficult.
About 30 county elections directors or deputy directors have left their jobs since January 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, with some saying their jobs were no longer sustainable. That loss of institutional knowledge and lack of relationships across counties has been a challenge, officials said.
Small mistakes happen in elections without ever influencing the outcome — let alone being evidence of any kind of fraud. They’re complex, decentralized, and dependent on thousands of people. Ballots get misprinted and undertrained poll workers sometimes slip up. A computer crashes. A poll book gets put in the wrong box.
“We plan ourselves silly, but then on Election Day, that plan is going to run up against 9,000 precincts and nine million voters and 50,000 poll workers, and that’s when you have to start thinking on your feet,” said Forrest Lehman, elections director in Northern Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County. “But the difference now is that there’s no understanding, there’s no forgiveness. … It’s gonna be instant and enduring condemnation.”
So it’s not just what might go wrong that keeps officials up at night anymore. It’s how a tiny error can blow up into something larger. And nobody wants to be the next target.
Nor do they want to be the poster child for election problems in Harrisburg, where Republicans in the state Senate have embarked on a partisan review of the 2020 election. After the May 2021 primary, narrow election administration issues became political fodder for Republican lawmakers pushing sweeping changes to election law.
“No one wants their imperfections to be known to thousands and more,” said Lee Soltysiak, chief operating officer and elections clerk in Montgomery County, which sent 16,000 voters incorrectly printed mail ballots this fall. “But the new environment is rather than getting a call from someone else somewhere in government asking how they can help, it might be a subpoena.”
Several elections directors said they’ve begun taking anxiety medication.
“It’s a different kind of anxiety, because you don’t even want to come to work, it’s horrible. We can’t keep employees, it’s just all around a bad vibe,” said one elections director who started medication last year and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss mental health issues. The official described losing weight because of stress that, while lessened, has continued this year.
“A lot of us couldn’t deal with it. I don’t know how I was doing it,” the official said. “I keep asking myself every day, ‘How did I make it through 2020?’ But I don’t think the next one’s gonna be any better.”
Officials recalled being yelled and cursed at in meetings, on the phone, and in person. Some have become wary of talking about work in social settings. A few said they tried scrubbing their personal information from the internet. Photos of one official’s home were posted online alongside pictures of a dead animal.
The online vitriol hasn’t stopped, including casual threats posted as Facebook comments and accusations of election rigging in direct messages.
“I’m not the mayor. I shouldn’t need police protection,” said Philadelphia elections chief Lisa Deeley. “My deputy shouldn’t be on a first-name basis with the Homeland Security people or the dignitary protection people. This is not the way this is supposed to be.”
Elections officials in several counties, including Philadelphia, had police protection last year. The windshield of the clerk in one suburban county was smashed twice in the run-up to last November’s election.
Things aren’t as bad this year, officials said, though several added that being less scary or intense than 2020 isn’t anything to celebrate.
And the memories are still fresh, the fear still alive.
“I’m here late every night now, I come when it’s dark, and I leave when it’s dark. How comfortable is it for me?” said Sara May-Silfee, elections director in Monroe County in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “There’s crazy people out there who swear we had something to do with a conspiracy. ... It’s just a different world.”