Lightning rods in a political storm
Facing angry voters and chaotic rule changes, election workers in Pennsylvania are starting to burn out
Less than a month after the 2020 presidential election, Forrest Lehman, director of elections for Lycoming County, Pa., was flooded with angry calls from voters demanding his office check voter rolls. Viral social media posts alleged that ballots were cast under a dead person’s name and that this swayed the election results. Lehman and his staff waded through hundreds of calls for more than a week, checking voter registrations for people who died more than a decade before. They did not find a single current registration.
The short-lived craze was only one instance of the harsh spotlight local election officials now face. One election director found a dead animal in his front yard that he believed was left there as a threat. Another told Lehman irate voters pulled into his driveway demanding answers about 2020 election fraud claims.
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt received death threats naming his family and their home address after then-President Donald Trump called him a RINO (Republican in name only) for defending the city’s votes, 81 percent of which went to Joe Biden. In November 2021, Schmidt announced his early resignation after 10 years as a city commissioner.
Schmidt is not the only one leaving a toxic battlefield. A mass exodus of election officials in Pennsylvania has left more open positions than qualified people to fill them as public servants succumb to hostility from voters, controversy from policy changes, and burnout from overwork.
The problems have been building for years, and 2020 isn’t the first presidential election to stir voter anger. Jerry Feaser, who runs the Board of Elections in Dauphin County, recalls furious voters in 2016 who demanded recounts when Hilary Clinton lost her presidential bid. “What we are seeing here as a result of 2020 is the same thing we saw in 2016,” said Feaser. “It’s just that the tables are turned.”
One voter contacted Feaser to insist that scanners should not be used on their ballots. Feaser then launched into explanations of how the machines worked, why hand-counting thousands of ballots on election night is impossible, and the numerous checks to prevent illegal ballots. When the voter kept accusing the county of perpetrating fraud, his solution was to hire her as a poll worker to see the process for herself. After training sessions, Feaser did not hear further accusations from her.
In Lycoming County, Lehman struggles to keep up with the conspiracy theories of the day that bring angry voters to his door. “Social media manages to make people confused and suspicious and paranoid way more efficiently than I can undo it,” Lehman said. “I can’t change minds as fast as social media can make them up. Sometimes even if they believe my explanation, they’ll pivot to ask about other counties and say they have corruption. I even get this from state legislators.”
IN PENNSYLVANIA, the chaos of the 2020 election cycle actually began a year earlier. Election bureaus in Pennsylvania operate under the commonwealth’s election code, which the legislature overhauled for the first time in more than 80 years in 2019. While Gov. Tom Wolf lauded Act 77 as a grand, bipartisan compromise to encourage more voting, the demanding changes strained election directors.
Act 77 opened the floodgates for mail-in votes and shortened registration times. The law moved the deadline to register from 30 days to only 15 days before the election. At the same time, Act 77 allows no-excuse mail-in voting and the ability to mail a ballot until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Election directors said the law gives them impossible tasks with little relief.
The legislature gave election directors the draft of the bill to review only 48 hours before it passed. Lehman had hoped for broader changes to consolidate voting centers and cost-saving measures.“There was none of that kind of forethought,” Lehman said. “It was just horse trading, and election directors were left outside the barn.”
The U.S. Postal System complicates a national push to increase mail-in voting. According to Feaser, Pennsylvania election officials began bringing up mailing issues in 2014 when USPS changed its distribution process to cut costs. One of those changes means the post office is closed on Sundays, which leads to what election directors call “no mail Tuesday.” The deadline to file an application for an absentee or mail-in ballot is on a Tuesday.
Feaser called the 15-day deadline “intellectually dishonest” to voters and taxing on election staff. He has a reputation for being the loudest voice in a room when arguing his point with commissioners. Feaser said he has repeatedly fought for changes to the mail-in deadlines as postal service delays make rapid delivery more difficult: “It is not about disenfranchising voters that I say that we move the deadline back. It is exactly because I’m trying to protect the voters’ right to vote by mail, but don’t expect me a week before the election to move heaven and earth to get you your ballot.”
When the pandemic hit, Feaser immediately searched for a mailing house, correctly anticipating a massive wave of mail-in ballot requests. Other counties still print, stock, post, and mail all ballots in-house. Before 2020, Dauphin County had mailed a maximum of 7,000 absentee ballots in an election. In the presidential election of 2020, Feaser had to issue nearly 70,000, a task he said would have been impossible if they hadn’t moved into a larger building with massive ballot sorters in time.
Why doesn’t the legislature draft bills to address the technical cogs of the election wheel? Part of the problem is partisan fighting. Pennsylvania is a bellwether of the rest of the nation: a purple state, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. The majority-Republican legislature and the outgoing Democratic governor frequently duel, which leaves election directors with little change.
“Once you introduce a bill that opens up the election code, you have the Christmas tree effect,” Feaser said. “Everybody wants to decorate it, and then it just dies under its own weight.”
“We’re talking about inside baseball, granular, unsexy policy areas within the administration of elections. The politicians want to make headlines for having a food fight about voter ID or same-day registration,” Lehman noted. “Meanwhile, we’ve got election directors pulling their hair out because they’re in the worst of both worlds managing both mail-in voting and in-person voting.”
At the first Republican governors debate in Carlisle, Pa., on Jan. 5, nearly all 13 attending candidates mentioned election security as a primary goal. One candidate, current Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, went so far as to say he would refuse to hire anyone on his staff who voted for what he calls “the biggest scam in Pennsylvania political history.”
Act 77 forced election directors like Feaser to overhaul their entire operations, learn how to program new voting machines, and deal with angry and confused voters. He said all the changes might have been easier and the act itself might have been more useful if legislators could exemplify the civility he wishes to see at the polls.
“I miss the days when I worked downtown in the legislature and saw strong leaders who would battle on issues,” Feaser said. “At the end of the day they go out to dinner and ask how the family was. They were human to each other. I don’t see that at the national level anymore, I don’t see it often enough at the state level.”
On Jan. 28, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of a Republican challenge that argues Act 77 violates the state constitution. Notably, many of the challengers originally voted to pass the law in 2019. The Wolf administration has appealed the decision, which leaves mail-in voting in effect while the state Supreme Court takes up the issue. The Democratic-majority court is expected to keep Act 77 in place, but legal experts note the plaintiffs might have a strong case in arguing that its passage violated constitutional procedure.
SOME TWO DOZEN election directors and deputies resigned their posts in the months and years following Act 77. At least 30 counties out of Pennsylvania’s 67 have lost a director or assistant director. The resignations are not unique to the Keystone State.
An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found, as of 2020, roughly 35 percent of local election officials nationwide were eligible to retire by 2024. Many counties expressed concerns about replacing these officials amid contentious elections, overworked staff, and rampant hostility. Directors and senior officials repeatedly cited unsustainable workload as a reason for leaving.
Michael Susek started his public service career as an entry-level county election administrator in Colorado in 2004. For 15 years, he moved up the ranks helping three counties administer elections. In December 2021, he moved back to his home state of Pennsylvania to fill Luzerne County’s empty director of elections position. For Susek, the role brings back his project management muscle memory from Colorado, but he also notes the responsibility is heavier this time.
Luzerne County’s Board of Elections has seen its share of controversy. Three different directors passed through in the last three years, with the most recent director resigning just one month before the November 2021 general election. Local headlines reported military ballots accidentally thrown in the trash, miscounted tallies, faulty touch screens on voting machines, and office turnover for the past several years.
Shortly before he moved back to Pennsylvania, Susek watched an HBO documentary on the Jan. 6 riots, when protesters stormed through the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
“It was the first time I thought, ‘Maybe getting back into elections isn’t such a good idea,’” Susek remembered. “I have a wife and a 4-year-old, and if an election goes south, it might put us in a violent spotlight. It’s a scary thing to have to put into perspective.”
Trump specifically called out the midstate county by name when his campaign sued multiple Pennsylvania counties for suspected election fraud following the 2020 election. Luzerne County was not listed as a defendant in the suit, and Trump won the county by more than 20,000 votes.
Susek said his first priority is to regain trust, and the first step toward that goal is transparency. Within his first three weeks, he answered calls from voters, agreed to local interviews, met with county officials, and set up cybersecurity training sessions for staff. He said the goal is to have progress points he can report to county residents to earn back trust in the electoral process.
“The public should inquire and learn how elections work, but I wish that people understood how heavily regulated and structured and local this professional environment is,” Susek said. “Your ballots aren’t counted in some secret underground room in Virginia. They are probably counted within a couple miles of your house by people you know.”
Back in Dauphin County, Feaser wades through election judge rejection letters and pins handwritten checklists on his basement office wall in preparation for the May primaries. When the Board of Elections moved to a new building, he opted for the quiet office tucked in the recesses of the sorting machines and ballot cages so that when he retires after the 2022 midterms in November, none of the remaining staff have to move offices on the main floor.
“I thought I’d know from one day to the next, what needs to be done,” Feaser said. “I thought, ‘elections never change, because we run them all the same way.’ But since I took over, no two elections have ever been the same.”
But Feaser admits he might have been among the 25 percent of Pennsylvania election officials already retired if he lacked support from the county board of commissioners. Lehman agreed that lack of county support leaves election directors exhausted. Now that so many have left, he is concerned about keeping elections running smoothly without an old guard to train the new: “Not having an experienced election director means that the odds of a mishap occurring go up. And then if that is combined with a feeling that we’re not being listened to by the legislature, by the governor, or by the voters, then what’s the point? Our needs are falling on deaf ears.”
When he retires in February 2023, Jerry Feaser will pass the election director reins along, he hopes to his deputy whom he has been training for over a year. Michael Susek has no predecessor to learn from, so he must wade through distrust and new procedures on his own. And Forrest Lehman will be left as one of the longest-sitting election directors in Pennsylvania, having served in the position for nearly 10 years.
“Someone new asked me who they should talk to, but all of the people I would have recommended are gone,” Lehman sighed. “In what universe is someone like me suddenly one of the old timers?”
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