As votes roll in, local elections officials are ‘quiet heroes,’ former Pa. elections chief says

By: - May 16, 2023 2:05 pm

On Tuesday morning, instead of heading to work to oversee the commonwealth’s primary election, former acting Secretary of State Veronica DeGraffenreid voted at her local polling place in Harrisburg – just like any other Pennsylvania voter.

But that doesn’t mean she isn’t paying careful attention to election-related matters across the state. The former Wolf administration official now serves on the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice and other organizations, that’s dedicated to protecting the safety of election workers and to build trust between those workers and law enforcement.

DeGraffenreid took a few minutes to speak to the Capital-Star about the committee’s work, and to explain why you should volunteer at the polls in this November’s general election. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Capital-Star: There’s been a crisis of faith in our elections over these past few years. And we’re now seeing election-deniers running for offices where they could have oversight of elections. What do Pennsylvanians need to know about this? 

DeGraffenreid: What’s important for voters to know – and to understand – is that election administrators are bound by the law, and rules and codes, both federal and state. When they take up their duties, they take an oath to uphold the constitution, not only of the United States, but their respective states. I’m so proud of the work that local elections officials do throughout the year … [and] I am hopeful that regardless of who is in charge, that they will follow the law, and seek to ensure safe and fair elections.

Former Pa. acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid testifies during an Aug. 24, 2021 Senate State Government Committee hearing (Screenshot).

Q: Across Pennsylvania and the nation, there’s been a loss of election workers, who are saying they’re tired of the partisanship and the threats to their safety. They’ve taken their institutional knowledge with them. How do you reverse that trend? 

A: We see it all through the country, we’ve seen it in Pennsylvania, since 2020, and going into 2021 and 2022, there has been a significant number of individuals who had been working in elections for a number of years, and decided that it was not the kind of … profession that that they felt comfortable or safe being in. That is absolutely a concern.

We need people who are going to stick with it and learn. Sometimes it takes several years to get experience. And in Pennsylvania and other states, we are losing the institutional knowledge that is so vital to have smoothly running elections. That’s not to say that elections won’t be fair, but it puts a lot of pressure on the system for a fair process. 

It’s important that we support election workers. That’s why I joined the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections. We seek to facilitate good dialogue between elections officials and law enforcement. We want election administrators to know they have the support of their communities. And we want them to be able to carry out their jobs without threat or harassment. And unfortunately … We have seen an increase in that behavior in recent years. 

Q: There’s another election coming up in November. And there already are calls for volunteers to work at the polls. What’s the argument for getting involved? 

A: It is a wonderful experience to get involved — and helping to support our American democracy … We know that people are hesitant. When you serve as a poll worker, you learn firsthand what it takes for elections to be administered. It helps you get educated on what is happening, and what is supposed to happen with elections. And you have the ability to talk to your friends and family to instill faith [in the process].

Q: And if Pennsylvanians are at the polls today and they see something that causes them concern, what should they do?

A: Voters can talk to polling place officials, or reach out to the local election board … or the Department of State … It’s so important to seek out a trusted source … who can provide voters with reassurance on what’s happening, or allow it to be investigated. If you see something, just ask. 

Q: Acting Secretary of State Al Schmidt will be doing the usual 9 p.m briefing tonight. Are you going to miss that at all? 

A: I will be cheering on the county and local election administrators. They are the quiet heroes and they do so much work, sometimes with limited resources, which is why there has been more attention paid to funding [elections]. I applaud Pennsylvania for its bipartisan efforts going back to 2019, and the work that county and state administrators are doing  – and continue to do.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.