Up for the Count

Photo by Cory Clark

Deputy Commissioner (and East Falls resident) Seth Bluestein explains the changes that made the 2020 general election so contentious – and why there shouldn’t have been such a fuss.

I suspect that most people find counting votes as exciting as watching paint dry. But it’s an essential element in making sure our democratic republic functions properly.

And, says Deputy City Commissioner Seth Bluestein, the process can be interesting to follow. It certainly was for the supporters of ex-President Donald Trump who claimed massive fraud as well as for the supporters of President Joe Biden who dismissed those claims.

Another person who dismissed those claims was City Commissioner Al Schmidt. The lone Republican on the three-member city elections board, Schmidt appointed East Falls resident Bluestein to a deputy commissioner slot shortly after taking office in 2012. (Each of the three commissioners gets to appoint one or more deputies to assist with their work.) When Schmidt’s chief deputy moved out of the city five years later, Bluestein was promoted to chief deputy.

“Every election has aspects of it that are interesting,” says Bluestein. “It’s not as boring as some would think. But this election in particular was a different experience.”

What made it different began in 2018. “For the first six years I worked in the commissioner’s office, elections were pretty well established with their procedures; we had the Danaher voting machines that the city had been using since 2002.”

In 2018, however, “Gov. [Tom] Wolf put out a mandate.” The mandate required every one of the state’s 67 counties to purchase voting machines that produced a paper record of each vote cast. That, in turn, required the city to obtain new certification of the machines from the state. It took a little more than a year for the machines to be purchased and certified; they were first used in the November 2019 city general election.

The other development that year that made this year’s elections interesting was Act 77, a major revision of the state election code passed by the General Assembly. One of its biggest changes was the adoption of no-excuse absentee voting by mail.

“We had to implement a brand-new method of voting with no clear expectation of how many people would be interested in voting by mail,” says Bluestein. “And then the pandemic hit. So you take brand-new voting machines and an election law and environment that no one had run an election in in the last 100 years. Those things combined made it a challenging and interesting 2020.”

Adding to the challenge was something the General Assembly didn’t change: when the mail-in ballots could be opened and counted, a process known as “canvassing.” Many states that now make wide use of mail-in ballots allow election officials to open and even count mail ballots prior to Election Day.

Pennsylvania did not.

And the large number of mail ballots meant the preparation took longer. In previous elections, the city would receive no more than a few thousand absentee ballots — “maybe 10,000 in a presidential primary,” says Bluestein. As the total was usually not enough to alter the outcome of a statewide election, mail ballots would not be opened for counting until the Friday after Election Day, by which time the machine counts had been certified.

Bluestein said that the May primary election gave the commissioners an idea of how many voters would choose the mail option. “We saw that about half the voters in the city voted by mail, and our expectation was that this would be the same” in November, he says. “But who those voters were were not evenly distributed between supporters of President Trump and supporters of Vice President Biden.” Like most outside observers, Bluestein attributes the discrepancy to Trump’s actively discouraging his supporters from voting by mail, while by contrast, the Biden campaign encouraged it.

Thus, where in years past, 95 percent of the ballots were cast in person, less than a quarter of the total were cast in person this past November. That plus the rules on processing mail ballots ensured it would take days for final tallies to be issued.

And the city had people working full tilt to count the ballots. “We had a major operation at the Convention Center,” says Bluestein. “We had staff working around the clock, 24/7, in three shifts, nearly 150 people per shift. We worked from Tuesday morning until Friday night, nonstop.” (The city did pause the count for a few hours on Wednesday while it appealed a state judge’s ruling requiring canvass observers to stand closer to the counters.)

Because of the way the city processed the mail ballots, updated counts were released in batches. And after reporting the machine counts late Tuesday night, the next batch results were not released until 5:30 the next morning, leading Trump supporters to allege fraud.

Or worse. Schmidt told reporters he had received telephoned death threats while the count proceeded. “I did too,” says Bluestein.

“Our job is to make sure that every validly cast vote from registered voters is counted, and that’s what we were doing,” Bluestein says of the post-election canvass. “It was unexpected, to say the least,” he says of the death threats.

Bluestein had good things to say about the canvass observers. These are people chosen by each party to observe the counting of the votes; the parties submit lists of names in advance for approval by the commissioners. “Generally, the canvass observers from both sides were all very, very well behaved and very friendly,” he says. A few observers forgot the rules against taking pictures or talking to the staff, but “overall, the rapport was pretty good and everyone was generally well behaved. Most of the complaints about the process for the observers came from individuals on the outside who weren’t even present.”

Even without a candidate agitating to have a legitimate count of ballots stopped, Bluestein says that changes need to be made in the state’s election code in order for widespread mail balloting to work properly. “A lot of the controversy surrounding the vote-counting probably would have been mitigated with the ability to count, or even just open the envelopes, in advance of Election Day.

“Certainly the status quo is not going to be sustainable for large elections like the presidential election, or potentially the upcoming midterm election,” he continues. “And whether it’s three days of pre-canvassing or three weeks of pre-canvassing, the legislature certainly needs to consider alternatives to how it’s currently structured.”

Both Bluestein and his boss will no doubt have something to say about the changes. Schmidt announced that he would not seek re-election in 2023, and he made it clear that the threats he received from Trump supporters played no role in his decision. As for Bluestein, “I’ve been focused on preparing for the upcoming May primary and haven’t begun to think about my plans for when his term ends in 2024.”

About Sandy Smith 6 Articles
Sandy’s interest in journalism stretches all the way back to high school, and he’s been scribbling away ever since then, either in the field or in its hired-gun cousin, media relations. He currently runs the Real Estate & Home channel at Philadelphia magazine's website, phillymag.com. You'll find his column on trends in real estate and design in the print edition. Cities and the built environment float his boat, as does rail transportation, and he’s written about all of the above for Philadelphia-area media and beyond. His work has also appeared in Next City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Hidden City Daily and several other regional publications. Sandy is a Kansas City native who currently lives in East Germantown. Follow Sandy on nwlocalpaper.com and social media -- Twitter: @MarketStEl Facebook: WriterSandySmith

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