Local Officials Thought Their Elections Were Threatened by a Pandemic

Actually, it was something worse.

Poll workers wearing masks stand by a drop box.
Poll workers at a ballot drop box at the Miami-Dade County Election Department on Oct. 19. Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access.

County election officials in Pennsylvania could see the problem a mile away. As the fall neared and with no end to the coronavirus pandemic in sight, they braced for an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots to come flooding into their offices.

Together, they begged state lawmakers to let them open, but not count, the hundreds of thousands of ballots arriving ahead of Election Day. Most states allow election officials to start processing ballots in the days before the election, but Pennsylvania law notably does not.

The state legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, left them hanging. Negotiations over a bill that would have granted counties at least two days of pre-canvassing—a potential deal between the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers—broke down at the last minute, leaving election officials with no additional time to process ballots.

Now, with just a day until vote counting can begin, officials are scrambling, working overtime to avoid a situation in which the state’s delayed ballot-counting process leads to incomplete results in the presidential race for days or weeks.

“We are all exhausted and grumpy and miserable,” Renee Smithkors, the elections director in Bradford County, told a Votebeat reporter at the investigative outlet Spotlight PA. Smithkors said she’s been working 80-hour weeks. Bradford County is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, and Smithkors said election officials are getting verbally attacked by angry and confused voters.

The 2020 election was never going to be easy to administer. Faced with a pandemic, an increasingly polarized country, threats of voter intimidation and violence, and the potential for foreign interference, the majority of local election administrators went to great lengths to ensure voters could participate in the electoral process. Across the country, underpaid and overworked county officials, like those in Pennsylvania, retooled the way their offices operate to accommodate a dramatic increase in the number of people voting by mail. They hired temporary workers to process ballots, invested in high-speed ballot processing machines, and trained new and younger poll workers. In Texas, they made the unprecedented decision to keep some polls open for 24 hours before the end of early voting. In Wisconsin, they agreed to continue counting ballots that arrived in their offices past Election Day.

But in those states and others, Republicans at various levels of government tried to thwart officials’ best-laid efforts, in many cases claiming that making voting easier would invite voter fraud, threatening the election’s integrity. They tapped into a narrative that began in 2002, when then–Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “Votes have been bought, voters intimidated, and ballot boxes stuffed,” but which has been repeatedly disproved by multiple subsequent Republican-led investigations, including one led by Ashcroft. Claiming the threat of voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent and often caught by the electoral process’s built-in safeguards, they pushed for barriers that ended up making voting more difficult. Because of the United States’ highly decentralized elections, they were able to push back against reform at all levels of government through legislatures and the courts.

What could have been an experiment in expanding the accessibility of voting—an election with fewer barriers, in which registration is easier and people can vote by mail, in person, or from their cars—instead has turned into a chaotic and confusing landscape with laws and procedures changing day to day.

In Texas, the challenge is on full display as local officials trying their best to make voting accessible run into Republican lawmakers and activists on the state level claiming voter fraud. In Harris County, the state’s largest, election officials announced in June they would be setting up 10 drive-thru centers to make voting easier for people worried about entering a polling place. Wisconsin had experimented with drive-thru voting during the primaries, and the effort was heralded as a success. But in Texas, Republican activists and candidates challenged the effort in court. While courts repeatedly have rejected the petition to throw out almost 127,000 ballots cast in the drive-thrus and to shut them down, the threat and the period of uncertainty was enough to make election officials’ job harder during the critical early-voting period, when they were receiving a record number of ballots. Local officials had to respond to accusations from Texas’ attorney general while considering alternatives, should the drive-thrus be deemed unlawful.

Then, in early October, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order limiting each county to just one ballot drop-off location. Despite efforts by Democrats to overturn it, the move was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court. To deal with the new rule, overworked officials had to make the important decision of where to place the one drop-off location.

Elections officials say the last-minute changes and constant litigation are a source of major anxiety. “No one understands how difficult elections are to run,” Christie Mooney, the elections administrator in rural Archer County, told a Votebeat reporter at the Texas Tribune. “The election administrators in every state in the Union are the ones that are under the pressure, waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

The pattern repeats itself across the country: Local administrators try to expand voting; Republican officials shut it down. In Iowa, local election auditors wanted to set up drop boxes to allow voters to return absentee ballots at places other than the county elections commissioner’s office, but the Republican secretary of state issued guidance forbidding it, and a judge upheld the guidance.

In Madison, Wisconsin, election administrators attempted to get creative with a plan to allow people to fill out and turn in absentee ballots in more than 200 parks across the city. The events, dubbed “Democracy in the Park,” were intended to help voters maneuver the state’s requirements for voting, including having a witness sign absentee ballots. Republicans tried to cancel the events, claiming they posed threats to ballot integrity.

The problems continue once ballots make it to local election officials. Due to so much last-minute litigation, officials are confused about which ballots they should count. State officials in North Carolina agreed in late September to accept signed affidavits to cure ballots that arrived by mail without a witness signature, but then, yielding to Republican objections, a judge ruled a new ballot would be necessary. A Supreme Court ruling in Pennsylvania last week upheld orders to count ballots postmarked by Election Day that arrive up to three days later—while a ruling in Wisconsin has meant that officials there must reject ballots that arrive after Nov. 3. Still, those requirements could change, with postelection litigation likely in states with close races. In Minnesota, late-arriving ballots have to be segregated, leaving them especially susceptible to litigation.

On the other end of the spectrum are states that legitimately used the opportunity this year to expand voting and weren’t met with opposition. Nine states mailed absentee ballots to every registered voter, including several that typically conduct all-mail elections (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) and four (California, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont) that don’t typically mail ballots to everyone but changed their practices to accommodate the pandemic. In Montana, a Republican-controlled state, 46 of 56 counties mailed ballots to everyone.

“There were probably some more red states or purple states that would have liked to do that, but they were prevented,” Tammy Patrick, a former elections official, said.

Running an election in a typical year is already daunting for the more than 10,000 election administration jurisdictions in the United States’ decentralized elections system. In 22 states, the job of administering elections in some localities falls to just one individual. Election offices are typically underfunded and understaffed, and officials often become targets for voter anger and resentment.

This year, in addition to their typical duties, election officials are tasked with roles outside their expertise: protecting voters’ safety by enforcing mask requirements and fending off potential intimidation or violence. In Pennsylvania, that perfect storm of events is coalescing to make the job of seamlessly administrating the election nearly impossible. The state is one of five found in a recent report to have a high risk of violence by militia groups around Election Day. Even if the threat is unlikely, election officials have had to prepare for the worst. In Erie County, a critical bellwether, officials took steps last week to ban gatherings of armed people near polling places.

If there’s one thing that’s making election officials’ jobs easier, it’s voters. More than 93 million people have already cast their ballots. But there will no doubt be voters who wanted to participate but who feared for their health or safety, or lacked the necessary transportation or stamp or witness to appropriately cast their ballot. That number will be unquantifiable, even as it could affect the outcome of at least some races.

When local election administrators geared up for this election, they thought their struggle was against a pandemic. It turned out to be something much more formidable.