Voters waiting in line at an early-voting center at George Washington High School.Photographs by Morgan Levy for The New Yorker
On September 10th, Kevin Boyle, a Democratic state representative in Pennsylvania, opened his e-mail to find an invitation to a Zoom call with several Democratic advocates and former politicians. They wanted to speak with him on behalf of Keep Our Republic, a nonpartisan civic-engagement group that formed this past summer, amid the pandemic, to investigate unconventional threats to the election. The call included high-powered figures such as Richard Gephardt, the former U.S. representative and Presidential candidate, and Tom Rogers, the founder of MSNBC and CNBC. Boyle, who is forty and has a thick beard, represents a working-class district in northeast Philadelphia. He wondered why they wanted to talk to him. “I’m not a big shot,” he told me recently. “I represent sixty-five thousand people.” In the state legislature, he is also the minority chair of the Republican-dominated House State Government Committee, which oversees, among other things, the governor’s emergency orders regarding the coronavirus pandemic, and all matters related to voting.
Boyle prepared for a perfunctory discussion of Pennsylvania’s election. When he joined the call, however, the tenor was more alarming. “It was defcon 5,” he said. The former politicians warned Boyle that the Trump campaign might try to hijack the 2020 election, and that this effort could hinge on his state. “Pennsylvania, like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan, isn’t only a battleground state,” Mark Medish, the co-founder of Keep Our Republic, told me recently. “Pennsylvania has a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature. This political division sets up a potential dispute over who, in a contested election, can appoint special electors.” In Pennsylvania, even if Democrats win the popular vote, Republicans could contest the results, arguing that various procedural aspects are illegitimate. Court cases regarding the election could end up before the Supreme Court, which will be filled with Trump appointees and likely to rule in his favor. But Republicans don’t even have to win; all they have to do is stall. If the vote is not certified by December 8th, the Republican-controlled legislature could appoint electors, who would likely cast their votes for Trump.
Trump has been laying the groundwork for questioning the election results for months. He has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and made unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, especially among mail-in ballots. Much of his rhetoric has focussed on Pennsylvania. On September 26th, Trump held a rally at the airport in Harrisburg, where he claimed that there was rampant fraud in the state, noting that nine ballots cast for him had ended up in a trash can in Luzerne County. “The only way they can win Pennsylvania, frankly, is to cheat on the ballots,” Trump said. “Keep your eyes open if you see any shenanigans, which you probably will.”
Kevin Boyle, a state representative, leaving the Mayfair Diner.
Boyle left the Zoom meeting extremely concerned; he notified the Party leadership and the Democratic governor’s chief of staff, but was unsure how else he could help. Then, two days after Trump’s rally at the airport, Boyle’s Republican colleagues on the State Government Committee announced that they were introducing a measure to establish a special panel called the Select Committee on Election Integrity. The panel would have sweeping powers to oversee the election. Nominally, it would investigate claims of voter fraud. Kerry Benninghoff, the House Majority Leader, suggested that the panel would balance a recent slate of state supreme court decisions, which have favored Democrats and which he claimed have “injected chaos into the general election.” Boyle worried that the panel could be used to derail the election. The committee could have the authority to subpoena election officials, making it impossible for them to count ballots. It could impound ballot boxes in Democratic districts, making them unavailable to tally. If the committee delayed long enough, the legislature could take matters into its own hands.
The panel would likely be drawn from Boyle’s fellow State Government Committee members, a collection of ardent Trump supporters. In 2015, the former chair, Daryl Metcalfe, invited an avowed white nationalist to address the committee. One member, Cris Dush, has compared the Governor’s handling of information related to the pandemic to the media restrictions of Nazi Germany. Last spring, another member, Andrew Lewis, withheld the fact that he had contracted covid-19. (Lewis said that he had kept his diagnosis private “out of respect for my family” but that he had informed everyone he came in contact with who “met the criteria for exposure.”) Boyle tweeted, “The membership is the most firebrand hardline conservative north of the Mason Dixon line.” He worried that they would do anything they could to insure Trump’s election.
The vote on the Election Integrity committee’s creation was supposed to take place three days later. But on the morning of the vote, a Republican legislator on the State Government Committee tested positive for the coronavirus, and the session was called to an emergency halt. The delay allowed for more scrutiny of the proposal. “This committee touched on a lot of fears disenfranchised people have right now,” Liz Fiedler, a Democratic representative from Philadelphia, said. “They’re afraid that their votes won’t be counted accurately, and they wonder if there are outside, or inside, forces that will mess with the actual result of the election.” Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat on the State Government Committee, went on national news to decry the effort. Fiedler’s team drafted a petition against the new panel and circulated it around the state. “We wanted to shine a light on what was happening in Harrisburg, to let people know what the stakes actually were,” she said. Boyle frantically filed amendments to the resolution, twelve in all, including an attempt to remove the Election Integrity committee’s subpoena power and a provision to formally designate it as a “coup.” Republicans in swing districts soon became worried that the resolution could imperil their electoral chances. Valerie Gaydos, a Republican from outside Pittsburgh, issued a statement against the new committee: “I have urged our House Republican Leadership team to permanently table this legislation immediately. I strongly support free and fair elections and the democratic process, but adamantly oppose legislation which is unclear and undefined.” On October 9th, the Republican leadership announced that it was pulling the resolution.
Democrats rejoiced, but Boyle remained wary. He worried that, the day after the election, if their candidates were safe, Republicans could resurrect the panel and begin causing trouble. “This measure could come back to us in November, and we could have to vote on it within twenty-four hours,” he said. He feared that, as in 2016, the polls risked giving Biden supporters a false sense of security. “A lot of us Democrats are a little overconfident,” he added. But Pennsylvania’s votes could become decisive, and Boyle feared that state Republicans were ready to implement a series of controversial measures to upend the popular vote; they had already put preliminary efforts into motion. “This is so monumental,” he told me. “I don’t understand why people aren’t paying more attention.”
Boyle speaking with volunteers at a satellite election office.
Voters with completed early ballots outside the voting center.
The playbook that Republicans could put to use in Pennsylvania this year was partially developed in 2000, in the aftermath of the Presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. That year, the election was close, and the contest came down to Florida, where the candidates were separated by only a few hundred votes. After the initial count, a swarm of attorneys and poll watchers descended on the state to catalogue small mishaps that might serve as grounds to challenge the results. Most notably, they found that some voters had failed to fully perforate their punch-card ballots, creating what came to be known as “hanging chads.” Legal disputes about whether to continue tallying ballots, and which to count, wound their way to the Supreme Court, which eventually halted further recounts, leaving Bush in the lead. Gore conceded on December 13, 2000. But, even if the Supreme Court hadn’t intervened, Gore still might have lost the state. In Tallahassee, the Republican legislature had already begun the process of choosing a set of Republican electors who were going to vote for Bush regardless. This year, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan all have conditions that would allow for such an eventuality. (G.O.P. lawmakers around the country have denied any such plans. Andrew Hitt, the G.O.P. chair in Wisconsin, recently said that he’d heard of “no such discussion.”) But Pennsylvania seems most vulnerable. “Harrisburg in 2020 could be Tallahassee in 2000,” Ari Mittleman, a political analyst with Keep Our Republic, told me.
There are many issues with Pennsylvania’s election infrastructure that could leave it exposed. In 2018, the Department of State ordered all counties to introduce new voting machines with paper trails. The change is likely to cause confusion for voters and poll workers, as well as mechanical mishaps. During an election in 2019, a failure to properly calibrate new voting machines led to large-scale dysfunction in Northampton County, in the northeastern part of the state. If that kind of error is sufficiently widespread during the 2020 election, it could give Republicans an opening to contest the vote. Human error could also cause trouble. During the primaries, Erika Bickford, an elections judge in Lehigh County, was charged with interfering with ballots; she claimed that she was darkening the bubbles and trimming ballots so that they could fit into a scanner. Such a mishap could also lead to votes being challenged. “Elections are run by human beings,” Adam Bonin, a Democratic election lawyer, said. “When you’re dealing with millions of ballots, what you have to hope for is that there are always enough eyes on a question, and levels of review, to make sure that things are as standardized as possible.”
Republicans could also exploit the state’s mail-in voting system. The pandemic has led people to vote by mail in unprecedented numbers: to date, Pennsylvania has sent out more than 2.6 million ballots, and gotten back five hundred and eighteen thousand. Mail-in voting was only introduced to the state this year, and all sixty-seven counties have different procedures for receiving and counting mailed ballots, which is itself worrisome: in 2000, procedural discrepancies between counties served as part of the basis for Bush v. Gore, the lawsuit that challenged the validity of the election results. In Pennsylvania, under-resourced election boards, inexperienced voters, and exacting technical procedures could also introduce dysfunction into a system under strain. For example, in Allegheny County, the home of Pittsburgh, a printing mistake caused nearly twenty-nine thousand mail-in ballots to be sent out twice, and many voters aren’t certain which to complete. “I’m a lot less worried about voter fraud and suppression than I am about voter-system failure,” Charlie Dent, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania, told me.
Any idiosyncrasy will come under intense scrutiny. This month, the Trump campaign called for fifty thousand supporters, a group dubbed the Army for Trump, to descend on polling places and the offices of election officials in Pennsylvania and other states and observe voting. The tactic seems designed to intimidate voters, as well as to encourage allegations of voter fraud. (The effort is led by Mike Roman, who has a history of challenging votes on behalf of Republicans: in 1993, he helped overturn the results of a local election by convincing a judge that there were irregularities among the ballots of Latino voters.) So far, the plan has been stymied: earlier this month, a federal court in western Pennsylvania upheld a provision that banned out-of-county poll watchers. “Corruption!!!” Trump tweeted in response. “Must have a fair Election.” But even without Trump’s “army,” right-wing attorneys and local poll watchers are likely to surveil ballot-drop-off locations, looking for ways to invalidate votes. (Such surveillance occurred in the primary.) Dropping off a ballot for someone else, unless the voter is disabled or hospitalized, is called ballot harvesting and can cause the vote to be invalidated. In an article in TheAtlantic, Barton Gellman detailed an internal memo written by J. Matthew Wolfe, a Republican operative and attorney in Pennsylvania, who catalogued other problems that he had noticed with mail-in ballots in the primaries, and noted that Republicans could exploit these issues in the general election. Some voters, for example, had appended partial signatures, or had forgotten to sign entirely. (On Friday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that ballots cannot be invalidated because a voter’s signature does not match the one on file.)
Pennsylvania is also one of a handful of states that require a mail-in ballot to be sealed within a second “secrecy” envelope, another provision demanded last year by state Republicans, which was recently upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. If a ballot is received without the secrecy envelope, it is termed a naked ballot and is discarded. In the state’s primary, six per cent of ballots were thrown out because they did not arrive in that second, sealed envelope. A recent investigation conducted by “Frontline,” USA Today Network, and the Columbia Journalism School showed that, nationwide, naked ballots could lead to the rejection of as many as 2.15 million votes in the Presidential election, a number equal to the population of New Mexico. Lisa Deeley, the Democratic chairwoman of the Philadelphia city commissioner’s office, warned that, in Pennsylvania, a hundred thousand votes could be invalidated. (In 2016, Trump won the state by only forty-four thousand votes.)
More Democrats than Republicans have requested mail-in ballots in the state, by a margin of two-to-one. This means that in-person returns on Election Day are almost certain to favor Trump, an advantage that he will likely exploit, however falsely, to claim victory. “There’s value in controlling the early narrative,” Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, told me. “Republicans can start building public consensus about what happened.” It also means that subsequent efforts to contest mail-in ballots will primarily invalidate Democratic votes. Trump has a history of calling for mail-in ballots to be thrown out mid-count. In the middle of the 2018 Florida governor’s race, he tweeted, “An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must Go With Election Night!”
A volunteer for the Biden campaign.
Last week in Harrisburg, as the days ticked down to the election, the mood was one of uncertainty. Owing to several outbreaks of the coronavirus among legislators, and the fact that many Republicans still refused to wear masks on the floor, the Democratic leadership had requested that its members vote from their offices; cases of covid-19 in Pennsylvania were at an all-time high, but “so are the stakes of democracy,” Danielle Friel Otten, a state legislator, told me. The capitol building felt ghostly: fluorescent lights flickered over empty corridors and on a forlorn-looking exhibit about Pennsylvania’s dinosaurs. That afternoon, I found Representative Boyle sitting in a red-leather chair in his office, sparsely decorated with a photograph of his father’s village, in Ireland, and a child’s drawing of a bunny. He apologized for the state of the room. “I haven’t had any visitors here since March,” he told me.
One of the last remaining fights in the legislature centered on how votes would be counted. Many states had already begun counting mail-in ballots so that they will have results in a timely manner. But Republicans in Pennsylvania had refused to allow ballots to be counted, or even sorted and opened—a process known as pre-canvassing—before 7 a.m. on Election Day. This will likely cause significant delays. The count in Pennsylvania will be further delayed by the secrecy envelopes. Bob Harvie, a Democratic county commissioner in Bucks County, recently told me, of this summer’s primaries, “What took us the longest was to open the envelope, then open the secrecy envelope, then flatten the ballot as much as we could before it was counted. It was an endless process.” In the primary, his district counted seventy-two thousand votes. For the general election, he is expecting to count roughly a hundred and sixty thousand, and he estimates that it will take his team an hour to open every four thousand envelopes. “We’re going to have a hundred people working twenty-four hours a day to count these ballots,” Harvie said. Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican minority commissioner in the district, expressed frustration: “We’re stuck with the way the law is written.” He feared that it would be days after the election before Bucks would be able to come up with a preliminary vote count. “This isn’t just about Trump and Biden,” he told me. “We’ve got one shot of doing this, and if the country is waiting on Pennsylvania, we’re going to look terrible.”
During the primaries, owing to processing issues, it took Pennsylvania about three weeks to certify the vote. In the general election, there will be more than twice as many ballots to count. There will only be five weeks after Election Day before the legislature could appoint the electors. Some involved in the process are not concerned. “We fully expect the vast majority of the ballots to be counted by sometime on Friday, barring attempts to disrupt the count,” Kevin Greenberg, an election lawyer and the chair of the political bar in Pennsylvania, told me. Pennsylvania’s top election official recently pledged that the “overwhelming majority” of votes would be counted by then. However, some observers remain worried. Last week, before the legislative session ended, Democrats, along with a few Republicans, tried to push for a bill to allow pre-canvassing to begin. But the majority of Republicans refused to budge on the issue, and the effort failed. “It’s a blow for anyone who wants the election to run smoothly,” Fiedler, the Democratic representative from Philadelphia, told me. “It opens the door for a false narrative, the claim that there’s fraud, or that someone’s trying to rig the election, when people are sitting there working as fast as they can.”
The afternoon we met in his office, Boyle received word that the effort to allow pre-canvassing had been stymied. He worried about the fate of the vote in his state. “It’s pretty clear that Republicans are carrying Trump’s strategy to delay the vote count in Pennsylvania,” he said. “This whole pre-canvassing thing is about creating doubt in the results, so they can sell the override of the state popular vote.” He went on, “We all hope for a big, convincing Joe Biden victory. But, if Biden’s win is close, it would be naïve to think there aren’t alternate plans for us here in Harrisburg.”