By Joseph R. Powers
The United States might be facing a constitutional crisis in November. And unless things improve from the primary election, Pennsylvania could be at the epicenter.
On June 2, election workers confronted unprecedented challenges. Many counties were dealing with new voting machines. Recently passed legislation created a no-excuse mail voting option.
Then there was the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, many Pennsylvanians were understandably reluctant to stand in long lines to vote, polling places were closed because of the lack of workers, and counting the mail-in ballots was hindered by the need for social distancing.
As if all of that was not enough, the George Floyd protests complicated mail delivery in many cities.
Yes, county officials have more than enough excuses for the slow tallying of election results. With minimal time to prepare, the counties were confronted with the prospect of counting more than 1.4 million mail-in votes. We were warned that, just as Election Day has now become Election Month, election night reporting has become election week reporting.
But why could some counties, Allegheny (effectively) and York, for example, complete the count on Election Night while other counties were still struggling four days later? As of the Friday after the election, 49 counties were finished but 18 were still going strong. And in Philadelphia, only 14,000 of the 167,000 mail in votes had been counted.
The closely watched 10th Congressional District race was a good example of the discrepancies. Of the three counties wholly or partially in the district., York County completed counting all of its votes, machine and mail, on election night. Dauphin County finished machine vote counting on Tuesday but had only tallied about half of the mail vote. As a result of Dauphin’s and York’s votes, the Associated Press declared that Auditor General Eugene DePasquale had defeated his challenger, Tom Brier, the Friday after the election.
This was despite the fact that while Cumberland County had released its machine vote totals on election night, it then went radio silent about the mail votes.
As of Friday night, there was no public indication of how close the county was to finishing or how the two candidates were doing. There were some reports that even though the mail vote count was finished on Friday, county officials decided to wait until Monday, count the provisional ballots, and then release all of the numbers together.
This simply cannot happen in November. Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes and its divided partisanship, is universally regarded as one of the top six states, perhaps the tipping point state, in picking the next president. What if the whole world is waiting to see who won what is arguably the most critical election since 1864 and some of our counties are still counting a week after the election?
It’s one thing for the backers of congressional candidates to be anxiously waiting to learn who won, but to be in the same position in November with the presidency on the line? If that happens, there will be national television trucks parked outside our county courthouses.
They won’t be the only visitors. The conspiracy theories will be everywhere, and the protesters will arrive accordingly.
Those of a certain age will remember the “Brooks Brothers” riot during the Florida recount in 2000 when a group of Republican operatives forced their way into the Miami-Dade County courthouse to stop the canvassing. That was 2000. Today?
Well, armed groups have already descended on the state capitols to protest the pandemic; who’s to say they won’t do the same to county courthouses?
What to do? Some thoughts:
- Some counties got it right. Time for them to share. Maybe the Wolf administration could organize some Zoom classes so the early counters can share their secrets.
- $13 million in federal aid is on its way. Spend it on the equipment that is so obviously needed.
- And maybe most importantly, do not repeat the mistake of counting the vote secretly, waiting until the count is complete, and then releasing the total at the end. To do so invites suspicions that the counters were cooking the books. In fact, the leader of the Brooks Brothers Riot claimed, unconvincingly, that the reason for the courthouse assault was not to stop the counting (it did, the canvassing was terminated) but to restore the process to public view. Don’t give the conspiracy theorists that opening again. Make the counting available to the public. Ensure that the candidates and parties are observers. Hey, why not install a camera? It wouldn’t exactly be riveting TV, but nobody could then say that the voting was rigged.
And who would say that?
Well there is one name that comes to mind. In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump claimed the election was being rigged and had aide Roger Stone create a group called “Stop the Steal.” Trump has already begun similar rhetoric this year and some critics are warning of their concerns about a peaceful transition of power if Trump does not win at the polls.
Pennsylvania cannot allow itself to be in the center of that kind of constitutional crisis. In the fall, let’s get it right.
Joseph R. Powers, a former acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, teaches political science at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.