“Pennsylvania is likely to be ground zero for the ‘red mirage,’” said Ellen Konar, vice president of voter research at Hawkfish. “Ninety percent of Trump supporters plan to use the polling place; only 10 percent [vote-by-mail]. And for Democrats, it’s 36 percent in the polling place versus 64 percent by mail.”
Top Democrats here are intent on not giving Trump any ammunition for his expected claims of fraud.
“It’s just unacceptable,” said a high-ranking state Democrat of the city’s handling of the primary. “Can you imagine if we’re waiting on Pennsylvania and there’s still 300,000 uncounted votes in Philadelphia? Can you even imagine?”
At the phone meeting in July with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Commissioners Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir, Wolf said the problems that arose in the primary must be fixed, according to two people familiar with the conversation. Wolf, a multimillionaire businessman, also made clear that he would help fund better equipment that would help process mail ballots more quickly, the sources said.
Election administrators in the city have said they were understaffed, underfunded, and lacking state-of-the-art equipment.
Philadelphia, the largest Democratic stronghold in what strategists say could be the country’s tipping-point state, is critical to Biden’s campaign. Because of its electoral significance, the GOP has long scare-mongered about elections in the city, often in racist ways. Philadelphia has also come under fire for its history of corrupt Democratic politicians and some high-profile, though rare, cases of voter fraud, including a poll worker pleading guilty to stuffing ballot boxes this year.
In 2012, conspiracy theorists claimed that then-President Barack Obama receiving 99 percent of the vote or more in some heavily Democratic wards in Philadelphia was evidence of fraud. Four years later, Trump singled out the city, saying, “I just hear such reports about Philadelphia. … I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us.”
In Harrisburg, Democrats are pushing Republican leaders in the General Assembly to adopt legislative changes that would speed up the tally in Philadelphia and elsewhere, such as allowing mail ballots to be opened and scanned three weeks before Election Day. But few are hopeful that a significant compromise will be reached, which has only led to increased pressure on the city.
“It’s unfortunate because it really isn’t a partisan issue,” said Deeley. “It’s an issue about democracy.”
In a statement last week, Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman defended an election reform bill they introduced, saying, “Our proposal to increase election access, accountability and security goes further than the Governor’s plan. We look forward to working with him to fulfill the legislative responsibility to ensure fair elections and trust in the election process.”
The GOP legislation would allow election officials to start opening mail ballots three days before Election Day. But Wolf opposes the legislation because it would limit the amount of time voters have to request the ballots.
Since their July meeting, Philadelphia’s city commissioners, who run the local elections, have received a $10 million grant from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life to help fund upgraded equipment, satellite offices, personal protective equipment and other materials. Wolf has also raised more than $5 million to help municipalities implement mail-in voting and educate voters about their options, said Jeff Sheridan, his political adviser.
City election officials said the additional money puts them in a vastly better position than they were in June. They expect to open at least 800 polling places in Philadelphia in November, compared to fewer than 200 during the primary. Most of the $10 million in nonprofit funding is going toward costly equipment that will enable them to print, sort and scan ballots more quickly, according to the city’s grant agreement.
“We’d all like it to be much faster than we saw in June,” said Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff. “We learned a lot from the primary election and how we can do things differently. We’ve purchased new materials, new machinery to make that process faster.”
However, election officials said they still needed an additional $6 million, more staff and legislative fixes, such as the ability to count mail ballots before Election Day, and the elimination of so-called “secrecy” envelopes for ballots, which they said are burdensome to process.
“Even with all that equipment, with nearly 400,000 ballots that we expect to receive, it’s physically impossible that they will all be opened and scanned before the polls close on Election Day,” said Deeley. “The new reality is winners and losers are not going to be known at the end of the night.”
Most everyone agrees that it shouldn’t take upwards of two weeks again to count Philadelphia’s votes. At the same time, Wolf aides and election officials said people should understand that results will not be known on Election Day.
Beyond that, though, Democrats and city election officials are reluctant to state when, exactly, they think the vote tally should be completed, in part because outstanding lawsuits and legislation are still leaving many details about the election up in the air.
Sheridan said Wolf is “most concerned with ensuring that a free and fair election is executed across Pennsylvania” and “making sure every vote is counted is more important than getting results quickly.” Voting results will not be known on Election Day due to the reality of the times, he warned. However, he said, Wolf “wants votes to be counted as expeditiously as possible.”
Sabir, who was more forthcoming than other Democrats, said he expects it will take “within seven days,” though “the hope would have it be done within maybe two days, three days.”
Despite their fears, some Democrats and voter groups are also seeking to assure voters that Trump can’t do much beyond make a lot of noise.
“He says all manner of things. I think you just have to ignore it,” said Nutter. “The federal government doesn’t run elections.”
At the same time, Nutter said, people should be prepared for a potential red mirage in Pennsylvania.
“The fact that we won’t know for some period of time what those tallies are on the mail-in ballots gives further ammunition to Donald Trump and his people to raise questions, as illegitimate as those questions are, and create fear and doubt in the process,” he said. “And that is what I am very worried about. And that is certainly very possible in Pennsylvania because of the current restrictions that we have.”
RNC spokesperson Michael Joyce dismissed those concerns.
“Sounds like someone is worried about losing Pennsylvania this November and it isn’t President Trump,” he said. “While Democrats zero in on pushing theoretical conspiracy theories, Pennsylvania Trump Victory continues to focus on the voters who will put President Trump over the top once again in the Keystone State.”