Philadelphia County had barely counted any mail-in votes from its June 2 primary when Salena Zito, a writer known for her loose relationship with reality, jumped out with a story on June 6 proclaiming that President Donald Trump had gotten more votes than former Vice President Joe Biden in the Pennsylvania primary — a phenomenon she suggested should hearten Republicans for the fall.
The story turned out to be 180 degrees wrong. Once the votes were actually counted in Philadelphia, where a delay was caused by a large volume of mail-in ballot requests and mail-in votes, it turned out that Biden had pulled more than Trump statewide, even as Sen. Bernie Sanders gobbled 18 percent of the vote. The internet had a good laugh at Zito, and the world moved on.
Still, the story had gone viral on the right and helped set a narrative of a lack of Democratic enthusiasm. Even more troubling for Democrats, it was a preview of how Republicans will respond to election night results in November. If the same pattern holds, Trump could carry a massive lead in Pennsylvania when America wakes up the morning after the election. Every day that goes on heightens the chances of the courts getting involved to settle the matter — a U.S. Supreme Court, it shouldn’t be forgotten, that is controlled by conservatives and, just 20 years ago, threw a contested election to the Republican candidate.
Following the primary, Philadelphia County took upward of two weeks to tally its votes and counted “mail-in ballots in a dramatically slower pace than any other county in Pennsylvania,” Pele IrgangLaden, campaign manager for Rick Krajewski, complained to The Intercept. “The thing that’s alarming is, Republicans are watching this failure.”
Krajewski and Nikil Saval, both local organizers with Reclaim Philadelphia, finally declared victories on Monday: — Krajewski in the race for a state Assembly seat in West Philadelphia, and Saval, a socialist and the former editor of n+1 magazine, in a South Philly state Senate race. Both won against entrenched incumbents.
In the days following the primary, election officials told Philadelphia candidates that it could take more than 30 days to finish counting mail-in ballots, where thousands of voters who had applied for mail-in ballots also showed up to vote in person. Tens of thousands of mail-in ballots were turned in after the deadline, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
This year, for the first time in Pennsylvania history, any voter could vote by mail, a change that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law last year as part of a sweeping set of voting reforms. Philadelphia County voters requested more mail-in ballots than the entire state did in 2016. The massive increase in mail-in ballots overwhelmed election officials in several counties, including Montgomery County, which sent the wrong ballots to 2,000 voters. In that case, county officials worked with the U.S. Postal Service to resend ballots in time for the June 2 deadline. Requests for mail-in ballots continued to surge, and it became clear that many people would not be able to return ballots on time due to extenuating circumstances impacting travel and postal services during the coronavirus pandemic. On June 1, Wolf signed an executive order extending to June 9 the deadline to receive mail-in ballots for six counties: Philadelphia, Montgomery, Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, and Dauphin.
Saval and Krajewski, who had spent years agitating in the city, led a slate of progressive candidates that took on the local Democratic machine in Pennsylvania this year, energized by a local grassroots movement that found new energy after the 2016 election. But their victories carry a significance beyond just increasing the number of progressives in Harrisburg — they have the GOP worried about the November election.
The GOP controlled most counties in Pennsylvania in 2016, when the state flipped red for the first time since 1988. Counties in Trump country counted June primary votes much more swiftly than Philadelphia, in places like Allegheny and York, along with an additional remaining Democratic stronghold, Lehigh. By June 5, Philadelphia County had only counted 9 percent of mail-in ballots, 15,000 of 157,000. Allegheny had counted 207,000, and York and Lehigh counties had counted 40,000 each, IrgangLaden said. “Rick got a call from the city commissioner’s office saying it would take about 30 days,” he added, noting that other candidates received similar calls. By Monday, they’d counted enough to call it. According to IrgangLaden, counting picked up after election officials successfully struck duplicate votes from people who had requested mail-in ballots, and then also voted in person.
While enthusiasm and raw vote totals have been lopsided toward Democrats in every election since 2017, including the most recent primary, the capacity to distribute and count ballots is a weak spot. States across the country have already struggled to rapidly scale up decrepit mail-in voting programs for elections taking place during the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans are watching closely, particularly in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania, which already bungled distribution of mail-in ballots in a number of counties. If that lack of organization persists in November, Republicans will have an upper hand in what’s expected to be a tight race between Trump and Biden.
The president and fellow Republicans have spread the false claim that mail-in voting leads to rampant voter fraud, and right-wing groups are suing to remove voters from rolls in a number of states ahead of November, The Intercept reported. Philadelphia’s disorganization plays into that fearmongering.
Republicans sent paid staffers from the party’s national committee to oversee parts of Philadelphia’s vote count. The vote-counting process is open to one official observer from each campaign. Krajewski’s campaign had a volunteer in the room every day, alongside observers from the Republican National Committee, he said. A local Fishtown lawyer, Jordan Rushie, was also there. He previously managed the campaign for a Republican candidate for sheriff in Philadelphia. Rushie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I don’t know what it means,” Krajewski said. “I don’t know why they were there, but we can conjecture that they were there because they want to figure out how well Philadelphia — which is one of two Democratic strongholds in the state — how well we’re gonna be prepared if we have to do vote-by-mail for the general election.”
“Whether it’s increased funding or more staff, the commissioners’ office needs more capacity to count these votes in a timely manner, and we need a much better mail-in voting process for November,” he said. “Philadelphia County must be able to count mail-in ballots on pace with the rest of the state, otherwise we risk a result in November that excludes Philadelphia voters on election eve.”
The idea that Trump might not take a loss so quietly in November is “not alarmist anymore,” Krajewski said. That outlook becomes even bleaker if there’s a similar situation, where it looks like Trump won Philadelphia for six weeks post-election day. “You initiated fascism. He already said, ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’ I think at this point, we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that he’ll try to hijack democracy. Because he can.”