Last week, ASD Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine spoke with Seth Bluestein, city commissioner for the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Board of Elections, on the latest episode of Ballots and Bagels. They talked about preparing for and administering Pennsylvania’s May 17 primary. Please note that the interview took place before Pennsylvania ordered a statewide recount for the Republican primary race for a U.S. Senate seat.
Check out the full interview here. Below are the key takeaways:
Pennsylvania Election Officials Need to Be Able to Pre-Process Mail Ballots
Three years ago, Pennsylvania expanded the option of voting by mail to all voters, which led to a sizable increase in mail voting. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania lawmakers have failed to provide election officials more time to handle the increase in mail ballots. Unlike 37 other states, such as Florida, Arizona, and Ohio, Pennsylvania cannot begin pre-canvassing its ballots—the process for opening and processing mail ballots before Election Day and thus speeding up the vote counting—until 7 a.m. on Election Day. This continues to wreak havoc on Pennsylvania elections, including the state’s recent 2022 primary.
For Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election, the inability to pre-process mail ballots prevented election officials across the state from counting all their mail ballots by election night. “The largest number of mail ballots that we’d ever had in Philadelphia [before no-excuse absentee voting] was in the 2008 presidential election, and that was around 20,000 ballots. We saw many, many times that number in 2020,” Bluestein said. Because pre-processing each ballot often involves arduous work such as removing ballots from envelopes, validating voter signatures, and flattening the ballots in preparation for tabulation, Philadelphia election officials needed four more days after Election Day in 2020 to count the more than 370,000 mail ballots it had received.
For the 2022 primary election, Pennsylvania’s inability to pre-process all of the state’s mail ballots by election night was largely due to Pennsylvania’s officials’ inability to conduct quality control on the mail ballots they had already received prior to Election Day. For example, in Lancaster County, election officials discovered on Election Day that the company that printed its mailed ballots included the wrong ID code, which prevented scanning machines from being able to read thousands of their ballots. This error forced election workers to recreate voters’ choices on fresh, blank ballots that could be scanned—a process that took additional days and contributed to delayed results. “If [Lancaster County] had been allowed to precanvass these ballots prior to Election Day, that problem would have been found much earlier,” said Bluestein.
Regardless of the reason, the delayed reporting of election results can unnerve and anger voters, producing an environment in which conspiracies and distrust in the electoral process thrive. “In 2020, half the ballots [cast in Philadelphia] were by mail, so only half of them were known on election night,” explains Bluestein. “People were concerned that they didn’t know the results on election night, and, therefore, they started drawing up conspiracy theories, and bad-faith actors start[ed] using that concern as an opportunity to sow doubt in the system.”
While the January 6 insurrection is an obvious example of the physical consequences of election conspiracies, this kind of disinformation also “open[s] up a window for threats to election officials,” says Bluestein. Bluestein ought to know—a similar sequence of events during the 2020 presidential election resulted in a barrage of threats directed at him, which subsequently led to police being stationed outside his home.
If voters do not get results on election night, it should not be seen as evidence of a conspiracy, but of the electoral system working as it should, by counting every vote. Unfortunately, such a time lag also provides a greater opportunity for bad-faith actors to sow further doubt over the outcome of the election. Former president Donald Trump exploited a similar opportunity when he falsely alleged that delayed mail ballot results in both Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election as well as the state’s 2022 recent primary were evidence that the state’s elections are rigged.
- Pennsylvania lawmakers should pass legislation allowing state election officials to begin processing ballots at least seven days before Election Day. Similar laws are in place in both red and blue states across the country.
- Pennsylvania lawmakers should provide election officials with additional funding to help speed up the tabulation process of mail ballots, particularly if the lawmakers will not significantly expand the pre-processing period for mail ballots. Such funds could be used to purchase (and maintain) high speed tabulation equipment and add additional staff to expedite the counting of the vote.
Comprehensive Planning for Elections is Key
The Pennsylvania primary, including in Philadelphia, was smoothly administered. According to Bluestein, this was due, at least in part, to Philadelphia’s preparations ahead of Election Day.
The biggest issue Philadelphia confronted during the primary was a shortage of poll workers, according to Bluestein. When asked how his colleagues addressed this challenge, Bluestein touted the Philadelphia Board of Elections’ efforts to pair full-time elections staff with voting locations that had fewer experienced workers. “We take full-time staff from the Board of Elections, and we send them out [to polling places that need more assistance] and help them [new poll workers] get the machines set up, do another refresher training on the ground as they’re setting up the polling place, and then help them break down the polling place afterwards to get the results from the machines,” he explained.
As Bluestein begins looking toward November, his biggest advice for election officials preparing for the midterm elections is to prepare well in advance. Paper supply chain shortages could impact the 2022 election cycle, particularly because all 50 states will have a high demand for these materials, making it harder for vendors to fulfill print orders. “You need to be prepared to order all of your paper, all of your ballots, all of your materials now. Because even for the best-made plans, if your vendor can’t provide you what you need well in advance of Election Day, you’re going to struggle pulling off the election,” he said.
Finally, Bluestein noted the importance of building transparent relationships with voters and party officials to help counter false information and build trust in its elections. “We [election officials] have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible and to have conversations with the parties and the different campaigns in advance, so that they can build those relationships and have that trust. And it’s even more important for Republicans like myself to develop those relationships so that we can talk to the individuals who don’t have trust in the results right now and explain exactly what’s happening, what the processes look like, and why the results are coming in the way they are,” said Bluestein. Such proactive efforts not only help voters and others better understand the election process, but can help counter the election mis-, dis-, and malinformation that they hear.
- Election officials should make contingency plans for how to get your election supplies in case supply chain issues persist. This could include using alternative and backup printing vendors for ancillary printing needs; using materials from previous elections, if permissible; and/or putting aside extra money for purchasing goods at higher prices (due to supply shortages).
- Election officials should Continue making efforts to educate others about the election process, even those who have suspicions that are baseless. In some cases, it may be helpful to find a more trusted messenger to talk with these individuals about the elections process.
- Election officials and their partners need to continue conducting mock-election scenarios and tabletop exercises to simulate potential threats, assess their vulnerabilities, and identify ways to mitigate any efforts to interfere in the administration of the election.