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Campaign Chronicles
The Count Begins in Pennsylvania: “It’s Going to Be a Wild Ride”
Reporting inconsistencies, potential delays, and legal challenges could make vote-counting in the state chaotic.
By Eliza Griswold
November 3, 2020
The Republican-led state legislature refused to allow counties to begin opening or counting mail-in ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day.Photographs by Morgan Levy for The New Yorker
For the past several months, Marian Moskowitz, the chair of the Board of Commissioners in Chester County, Pennsylvania, has been having nightmares. “I dream the craziest things,” she told me last Friday, at County Cup, a coffee shop inside one of the county’s office buildings. In one dream, she’s hosting an emergency meeting about an election crisis in a location that she doesn’t recognize. In another, she’s calling officials for advice about some calamity, but no one knows what to do. “In my worst nightmare, we are starting to count votes on Election Day, and somebody gets an injunction and stops us,” she said.
Moskowitz is sixty-four, trim and tidy, and was wearing a pink blazer. She has run both a cosmetics company and a trucking outfit, and she describes herself as a “business-friendly Democrat.” Chester County, which is just outside of Philadelphia, has historically been a red district, but, this year, Democratic voter registrations outpaced those of Republicans, indicating that it could tip to Biden in the Presidential race. When I visited the county offices on Friday, a line of people in heavy coats waited to get coronavirus tests. In another line, voters waited to place their mail-in ballots into a drop box, which was monitored by both Republican and Democratic volunteers. When county staff came to retrieve the ballots, they wore body cameras. Moskowitz worried that any procedural oversight would later be used to challenge votes, and she was not taking any chances. “We’re vulnerable,” she told me.
For months, Republicans in Pennsylvania have been laying the groundwork for sowing confusion in the aftermath of the election. The Republican legislature refused to allow counties to begin opening or counting mail-in ballots—a process called “pre-canvassing”—until 7 a.m. on Election Day, which seemed sure to cause delays and mishaps. Republicans have also mandated that each mail-in ballot be sealed in a second “secrecy” envelope, a provision that will likely slow counts and lead to voter error. (In Philadelphia’s municipal elections last year, mistakes regarding secrecy envelopes were made on six per cent of ballots.) These efforts could delay the announcement of results from mail-in ballots, which more Democrats have requested than Republicans by a margin of two to one. This increases the likelihood of a “red mirage,” the announcement of Election Night results that favor Republicans, even if the true total favors Democrats. Such efforts could also be used to invalidate large numbers of Democratic votes, which could help Trump take the state. And, if votes are contested, it increases the chance that the results will be determined by a Supreme Court ruling or by the state legislature, both of which seem likely to favor Trump. Chester County has already been inundated with legal demands for documents. “In addition to all our staff has to do, they are dealing with request after request for discovery,” Moskowitz told me.
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Moskowitz led me down two flights of stairs and into the building’s windowless basement. Under fluorescent lights, a staff of fifteen, who had been working twelve-hour shifts almost every day since March 13th, toiled away. “These are the unknown essential workers,” Alexis Barsamian, an election official on the team, told me. Sealed mail-in ballots were being sorted by a giant, room-sized machine that sent them through a whirling set of gears until they ended up in one of two hundred and thirty blue baskets, organized by precinct. These would be sealed in shrink wrap, and then transported securely to a gym at West Chester University. On the morning of Election Day, ballots would be opened and scanned by sixty-five employees working in shifts, twenty-four hours a day. To expedite the process, Chester County has purchased ten extractors, machines that open both envelopes at a rate of a thousand ballots per hour. The county, which is wealthy, has spent more than a million dollars on equipment alone to try to speed its count. But the most time-consuming part of the process, smoothing the ballots so that they can be fed into the scanner, still has to be done by hand. During the primary, this process delayed the county’s certification by several days. This time, the ballots have one fewer fold, which officials are counting on to speed things up. “We hope to be done with the majority by sunrise on Wednesday,” Moskowitz told me.
The county’s new mail-extractor machines were purchased to speed up the vote count.
The machines can process up to a thousand ballots an hour.
Around the state, there are already worrying indications that the election will not go smoothly. In Butler County, thousands of requested mail-in ballots have gone missing. Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat, has been raising alarms about thousands of complaints of delays with the local postal service, which he worries will affect mail-in voting; when he and the Democratic Representative Susan Wild tried to inspect the workings of a post office in Northampton County, they were turned away. “Those are government representatives,” Lori Vargo Heffner, a Northampton County commissioner, said. “Why can’t they see what’s going on?” There are also troubling signs of voter intimidation. In Greene and Erie Counties, a resurgent K.K.K. has left fliers in public places, including outside the homes of voters with Biden signs. In an effort to prevent election-related violence, Erie County has restricted the movement of armed people around the polls who aren’t voting.
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In September, Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court ruled that counties can tally mail-in ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day—a win for Democrats, who worry that a slow mail system will cause absentee votes, even those sent in before Election Day, to arrive late. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling, but three conservative Justices on the Court indicated that they may move to reverse it after Election Day. The fight brewing over these ballots is poised to become critical in future legal challenges; postmarks may become the hanging chad of 2020. In response, half a dozen counties, including Butler and Cumberland, have said that they won’t count any mail-in ballots until after Election Day. “You’re exhausted. You’re tired. You want to make sure these votes are counted accurately and correctly,” Bethany Salzarulo, an election official in Cumberland, said. Christopher Borick, a political analyst at Muhlenberg College, told me that these decisions by local counties “could create a significant delay in counting a third of the votes.” The delay increases the chance of a mistaken appearance on Election Night that Trump has won.
In an attempt to address a potential Supreme Court challenge, the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a directive to counties to “maintain separate counts” for ballots received after Election Day. Counties have interpreted this in different ways. In Luzerne, Keith Gould, a Republican member of the board of elections, told me that late ballots would be tallied but not included in the official vote count, despite the fact that they are currently valid. “There’s no way for us to pull them out afterward, so we’re going to put them to the side,” he said. Moskowitz will include the ballots in her county’s results, but is keeping them in a separate location in case they are challenged. “We are counting them, but we’re scanning them separately so we can know which they are,” she told me. “We might have to deduct them, which is absolutely absurd,” she said. It’s possible that the number of late ballots will be small, but they are almost certain to be largely Democratic. “What I cannot fathom is that the Republicans don’t want every vote counted,” Moskowitz said. “If their children were being disenfranchised, how would they feel?”
Still, despite Republican machinations, Kevin Greenberg, an election attorney who represents the state Democratic Party, told me that the vast majority of local officials in Pennsylvania, both Republican and Democratic, were trying to do the right thing. “Count the votes and get us an answer,” he said. Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican county commissioner in Bucks County, is urging voters to get all votes in by 8 p.m. on Election Night, and to drop them off at drop boxes rather than risking delivery by mail. “The Republicans have made it clear—and I’m a Republican—that they’d like to see those ballots not counted,” he told me. “We want every vote to count.” In an attempt to give a more accurate tally, Bucks County, which is competitive in the Presidential race, is planning to announce the initial results of both mail-in and in-person votes at 10 p.m. on Election Night. “It will be a more balanced approach, and that’s the way to do it,” DiGirolamo said. But, despite his best efforts, he worries about the legal challenges if the results in the county are close. “This is going to be very ugly for our democracy,” he said.
A shrink-wrapped collection of Chester County’s mail-in and absentee ballots.
At 9 a.m. on Election Day, I visited West Chester University’s Ehinger Gym, where the votes are being opened and scanned. Four security officers stood by the doors, and a half dozen attorneys and party representatives wearing suits and yellow vests walked around the gym’s green floor. Late the night before, Chester County had received a new directive from Pennsylvania’s Department of State. To address the problem of naked ballots, election workers would be allowed to examine envelopes to look for errors; if they could tell by the heft and bulk of a ballot that the “secrecy” envelope was missing, Democratic or Republican representatives could try to contact the senders to come fill out a provisional ballot instead. When I arrived, two dozen election workers sat at nine card tables scrutinizing envelopes for errors. On each table, there were two bottles of hand sanitizer. One employee was listening to Prince; another was eating almonds. “One ballot rejected!” an employee called out to an elderly party representative sitting in the bleachers. Becky Brain, a county spokesperson on told me, “We didn’t expect to be doing this, so it’s slowing us down a little bit.”
Moskowitz showed me around the basketball court. The county had received an enormous number of ballots, and voter turnout looked to be significantly higher than in 2016. No matter who would win, the level of engagement was exciting to her. “For the first time in my life, our young people are coming out in droves,” she said. In the gym, sorting machines organized ballots into blue tubs, extractors opened them, and workers smoothed them and then fed them through high-speed scanners. By around 9 p.m, the voting data would be retrieved from the scanners on a media stick and transported to a nearby county building, where the initial results would be announced. But Borick, the political analyst, warned me that it will be nearly impossible to know what early results for the state actually mean. The disparate methods of tallying, county by county, are going to provide mystifying counts and piecemeal numbers. “The results are going to be so fragmented,” he said. “And even for me, and I’ve been doing this for years, it’s going to be difficult to get a really clear sense of what’s going on.”
Moskowitz hadn’t slept the night before, as usual; she had stayed up watching “The Queen’s Gambit” with her mother instead. “It’s too stressful,” she said. At six in the morning on Election Day, she finally got out of bed and made a video for voters, which she posted on Facebook. In it, Moskowitz holds up a gigantic cup of coffee and urges Chester County residents to take a deep breath. “Hang on everybody,” she says. “It’s going to be a wild ride.”
Read More About the 2020 Election
Eliza Griswold, a contributing writer covering religion, politics, and the environment, has been writing for The New Yorker since 2003. She won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” in 2019.
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Donald Trump
Joe Biden
2020 Election
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