The call came into Philadelphia’s 311 call center in the final days of October, right before Election Day.
“Hey, how are you? You know what happens to corrupt Democrat politicians and election officials who support Black Lives Matter and who use voter fraud and voter suppression, voter intimidation, and election tampering? You know what happens?” a man said, according to a recording of the call. “They learn first hand, the hard way, why the Second Amendment exists. We are a thousand steps ahead of you motherf—, and you’re walking right into the lion’s den.”
It was an unsettling reminder of how heated — and dangerous — American politics have become. As officials prepared for the possibility of violence and civil unrest following Election Day, they worried about the city commissioners, the three elected officials who run Philadelphia’s elections, along with their staffs.
Police performed threat assessments of the commissioners’ homes ahead of Election Day and planned strict security for the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where ballots would be counted and the commissioners and their staff would spend every hour of the day.
“We are working around the clock in a location that probably has the best security and is the safest place in the entire City of Philadelphia,” Al Schmidt, the lone Republican of the three commissioners, recalled of the last week in an interview Monday. “We have the police department, we have the sheriff’s office, and we have private security.”
Outside, tensions were rising, inflamed by President Donald Trump’s false attacks on the state’s electoral process and the sense that Pennsylvania — and Philadelphia — would play a key role in determining the presidency. As legal and political fights escalated, so did the vitriol: a torrent of death threats, harassment, and abuse, aimed at the city’s elections administrators.
It was, Schmidt said, like nothing he had been through in the previous two presidential elections.
After Election Day, as threats came in, Philadelphia police stationed officers outside the commissioners' homes, sometimes in marked cars and sometimes in unmarked cars, according to law enforcement sources.
On Wednesday, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called out Schmidt’s chief deputy, Seth Bluestein, by name at a Trump campaign news conference. When the threats and anti-Semitic messages and calls started coming in, police took up guard outside his home, too.
“My initial reaction to my name being mentioned in the news conference was not really much of a concern. I was frustrated with the misrepresentation of what was going on, the inaccuracies were frustrating,” Bluestein said Monday. “But it wasn’t until I started receiving social media posts that were threatening in nature and anti-Semitic in nature that I really became concerned, especially when it became threats of violence.”
On Thursday night, police arrested two men who drove to the Convention Center from Virginia with guns in their Hummer to “straighten things out” during the vote-counting.
Mayor Jim Kenney on Monday commended Schmidt “for his honesty, and for his courage, and for standing up for the election process he helped oversee.”
“For my part, I’m hoping that the nation’s temperature can cool just a bit when Joe Biden takes office,” Kenney said. “Almost 70 million people voted for Donald Trump. That is obviously a sizable number of Americans, so we cannot avoid the fact that we need to get back together.
“We’ll have disputes, we’ll have things we don’t agree about, but I do think we need to change the anger level,” Kenney added. “We need discourse that is civil, not vulgar or threatening.”
Things intensified in the lead-up to Election Day, Schmidt said. Trump falsely attacked the city and state repeatedly, and the campaign filed a whirlwind of legal challenges before, during, and after Election Day.
Inside the convention center, Schmidt said, workers have been busy trying to properly count all the ballots, despite all the literal and figurative noise.
“We have to do this work in a window of time, and there are clearly bad-faith actors looking to delay or stop us from counting votes cast on or before Election Day by eligible voters, and they’re clearly trying to run down the clock,” he said. He noted the demonstrations that had gone on for days outside the convention center, where dozens of Trump supporters rallied while hundreds of others danced, partied, counterprotested, and called for votes to be counted.
“Adding to the atmosphere are the demonstrations going on out front. It gives you a feeling of like you’re under siege,” Schmidt said. “And a lot of people are happy, and a lot of people are angry, but we’re just counting votes here.”
It can be tough to focus when you’re the subject of anonymous hatred.
“It’s always in the back of your head, and it’s always in the front of your phone. Every notification, every email,” Bluestein said. “I’ve received waves of phone calls and text messages because somehow my personal phone number was out there and discovered by individuals who wanted to send this abuse toward me.”
Schmidt called it “despicable” both that people would target Bluestein with hateful messages and calls, and that Bondi would name him in the first place: “I would think someone like that would know better than to incite stuff like this,” he said.
The whole thing is by design, Bluestein said, because it fits with larger attempts to slow or stop Philadelphia’s counting of mail ballots. When Bondi briefly paused and slowed down before saying Bluestein’s last name, he believed it was an intentional signal.
“The fact that my name is easily identifiable as being of Jewish origin, and I think the way she pronounced my name and the way she emphasized my last name, it’s intentional … the emphasis they’re putting on my last name is on purpose,” he said. “It’s a dog whistle. It is the dog whistle to get people who follow those dog whistles to try to intimidate and threaten individuals who are responsible for accurately and legitimately counting votes.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“What if I had decided to leave and gone home? And rather than having me here, helping to properly count legitimate votes from eligible voters, I just left because of the threats?” Bluestein said. “That would have had a negative impact on the city’s ability to get the votes counted and posted, and I believe that’s part of what their intent is.”
The key is to focus on the work, said city commissioner Omar Sabir. As a Black man, Sabir said, he thinks about the long history of violence in American elections and the way others before him fought for free and fair elections.
“If I lose my life while defending democracy, then I believe it’s well worth it,” Sabir said.
“When I first thought about running for the commissioners, this is not what I thought I was signing up for, but we got responsibilities, and we have to stay focused and stay disciplined and not let the bad guys win,” he said. “We have to keep fighting the good fight. It’s not easy, but we have to keep on pushing and keep on pushing, and keep on making sure that Americans have their voices being heard.”
Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Mike Newall, and Julia Terruso contributed to this article