President Trump’s debate comments about his supporters watching the city’s polls and his refusal to condemn far-right extremism left her shaken. “I’m so afraid they’re going to send in white supremacists, Proud Boys.”
Voting should be easy. It should be safe. For many Americans, it appears to be neither.
The reasons are legion. Voting anxiety is the latest entry in 2020’s bursting catalogue of fears. Worries and confusion mount over making each vote count. It’s seasonal elective disorder. And Pennsylvania has a pronounced case.
Americans have voted for more than two centuries, and yet we cannot manage to get it right. Despite being a wealthy, technologically advanced nation, or perhaps because of it, complications have only multiplied, along with our uncertainty.
We are told constantly that the stakes are staggering, that this is The Most Important Election of Our Lives. Coronavirus cases are spiking across the nation, making voting in person a risky proposition. Georgia residents waited up to 10 hours to vote on Oct. 12, an echo of the lines in many state’s primaries. Yet, given the maelstrom over mail delays, some feel valid trepidation about mailing ballots.
The intelligence community warns of multiple foreign bad actors waging election malfeasance, not so much a matter of if but who and how. In California, Republican Party officials admitted placing misleading unofficial ballot boxes. President Trump refuses to say whether he will concede.
The nation is infested with voting-related lawsuits. There are 385, more than there are days in the year, according to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project’s COVID-Related Election Litigation Tracker, which wasn’t on the Founders’ wish list but is apparently something we now need.
For a country hooked on immediacy, there’s anxiety that it may take days, if not weeks, to learn the outcome. In New York’s 12th Congressional District primary, it required six weeks to certify the election. Nobody wants the interminable, contentious hell of 2000. Some fear violence if the results are contested.
“I want my vote to count so badly, but I’m really not sure it’s going to. And it’s actually frightening me,” says Anna Headley, 56, a Philadelphia physician. Her mail-in ballot arrived two weeks ago, but she had yet to open it. “I keep looking at it as if it’s a bomb.”
Headley worries for other voters. “It’s keeping me up at night thinking of everyone else,” she adds. “It terrifies me. If I’m this scared about my vote counting, I’m even more scared for people for whom English is a second language.”
Pennsylvania is a petri dish of voter unease. In this presidential contest, the state has been crowned the tippiest of tipping points, its 20 electoral votes considered a necessary way station to arrive at 270. Both Trump, who won here four years ago, and Joe Biden — a son of Scranton, a constant in his political rhetoric — desperately want to win the state. Trump staged a rally in Johnstown on Oct. 13; Biden held his televised town hall in Philadelphia two days later.
This is the first year that Pennsylvanians can vote by mail, a move intended to make life easier and provide voters with choice, but it has managed to fuel consternation. Philadelphia is plastered with placards entreating “VOTE. MAKE A PLAN.”
“I would be very happy if it wasn’t coming down to Pennsylvania, if we were just one of the many states one way or another,” says Suzanne Almeida, a lawyer for the state’s chapter of the watchdog group Common Cause.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” says Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who projects that a third of the state’s registered voters will apply for mail-in ballots, twice the number in the primary. “We’ve had more changes in the past 2½ years than we’ve seen in the last century in the way that Pennsylvanians vote.”
Voters are vigorously debating whether to use the mail-in ballot or vote in person. It would be top fodder for bar fights — that is, if people were still going to bars. To complicate matters — because, why not? — residents who ordered mail-in ballots but change their plan must bring them on Election Day to be invalidated, otherwise they will vote with provisional ballots. “MAKE A PLAN,” for many residents, has launched an existential crisis.
“The level of anxiety is causing people to doubt themselves or to overthink this,” says Noam Kugelmass, a Philadelphia Democratic city committeeman. At least 20 people have asked him how they should vote.
Kugelmass warns voters that the weather may be lousy. Wait times may be considerable. You may be sick. The person in front of you may be sick.
“I’m asking people not to succumb to the fear and the anxiety and concern — which are real — by going to the polls because that’s adding to the chaos,” he says.
Trump’s debate salvo “bad things happen in Philadelphia” instantly became a rallying cry, a T-shirt and assorted merch, but it’s also viewed as a threat to residents like Neal. In Philadelphia, Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 7 to 1; the city is 44 percent Black.
Pennsylvania is among the battleground states where there is concern of a “red mirage” being followed by a “blue shift,” which sound like titles of apocalyptic disaster films with the same potential for mayhem. This is the scenario in which in-person votes reported on Election Day would favor Trump, only to be followed by an abundance of mail-in ballots supporting Biden. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer headline blared “Bracing for Chaos” and “officials prepare for the worst” in four-Klonopin type.
Philadelphia landlord Gregor Majeske, 59, has decided to vote in person. “I want my vote to count,” he says, and worries “that if I voted by mail, the count will be delayed and those results would not be presented in a timely fashion to be certified as counted.”
There are fears that thousands of mail-in ballots will be tossed because of voter blunders, including “naked ballots” that arrive without the required “secrecy envelope,” which is inserted inside a second official election envelope. (Naked celebrities were solicited to star in a cautionary video.)
“I worry about our ability to get it all done. I know that we will,” says Lisa Deeley, head of Philadelphia’s election commission. Of the new voting laws, “we barely had time to learn it ourselves before covid-19 struck.”
Last month, Deeley wrote to state lawmakers, after a court upheld the secrecy envelope requirement, that “it is the naked ballot ruling that is going to cause electoral chaos” — there’s that word again — with projected estimates as high as 100,000 ballots being discounted. Four years ago, Trump won Pennsylvania by less than half that number.
And then there are the lawsuits. “I don’t think I could count them at this point,” says Boockvar. At least 19 in Pennsylvania, according to the litigation tracker.
Republicans have legally challenged many aspects of the commonwealth’s mail-in ballot rules. (Requests by Democrats outnumber theirs by more than 1 million.) A Monday U.S. Supreme Court ruling lets officials count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day, denying the GOP’s request to prevent the allowance. There is a case, a monster migraine in the making, that would allow counties to toss ballots if the signature doesn’t match a voter’s original registration one, even if it was inked decades earlier or scratched by younger voters who were never properly taught cursive.
“I was very nervous about making a mistake,” says Eliot Ingram, 50, who runs a digital media company in Philadelphia and thinks he forgot the secrecy envelope during the primary. This time he spent a half-hour completing the ballot. “I think I signed my name properly. I wasn’t sure if my middle initial was there on my registration form.”
Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro blames the president for creating confusion.“It’s a battleground state that Donald Trump has to win, and he’s losing badly right now,” he says. “He is attempting to use the courts to undermine our laws in Pennsylvania. I won’t let him get away with it.”
There’s plenty of distrust to go around. Luzerne County GOP Chairman Justin Behrens says: “The biggest concern I have is with the mail-in ballot. I think there’s more and more opportunity for manipulation.” (Experts note that U.S. elections have not seen widespread voter fraud, via mail-in ballots or otherwise.)
In the debate, Trump said: “There was a big problem. In Philadelphia they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out.” But they were trying to enter satellite election offices. The polls are not open. Hence, no poll workers. The Trump campaign sued to have poll workers enter Philadelphia offices, and lost.
During the course of reporting, a county Republican official told The Post that all voters would be sent ballots whether they wanted them or not. (Not true. They must be requested.) A Philadelphia resident said voting early means your vote will be counted early. (Officials must wait until Election Day. Boockvar, the secretary of state, believes “the overwhelming majority” will be counted by that Friday.) Some voters suggested that political thuggery was afoot after a laptop and USB sticks used to program city voting machines were reported stolen from an election warehouse the night after the debate. (The district attorney determined it was a random crime but, yes, that’s some timing.)
Boockvar spends much of her time battling misinformation when she’s not fighting lawsuits: “It’s very frustrating. Every one of us should be working to reassure and boost confidence.”
Carolyn Williams will not succumb to the chaos, the notion that bad things happen in her city, as she drops off her ballot at Roxborough High.
“This is just the biggest scare tactic ever to persuade people from not voting,” says Williams, 71, a retired legal assistant. “If anything, it’s made me more determined to vote. It adds more fuel to the fire.”