What if in-person votes suggestPresident Donald Trump is winning Pennsylvania after the polls close, but the slow counting of mail ballotsin Philadelphia flips the tally in favor of Democratic nomineeJoe Biden in the days after? And what happens if Trump then wrongly claims the election is being stolen from him and calls on supporters to storm elections offices?
“This is the scenario that scared people the most,” said one participant in the planning session, who like two others present would discuss it only on condition of anonymity so they could describe a process that wasn’t open to public participation.
Their fear isn’t unfounded.
Trump has for months falsely assailed mail ballotsas beingvulnerable to widespread fraud, leading his voters to shun them.Requests for mail ballots in Pennsylvania show Democrats using them in far greater numbers than Republicans. They take longer to count than votes cast on polling-place machines, meaning early returns will disproportionately count Trump voters — a phenomenon Democrats have branded the “red mirage,” though it’s known academically as the “blue shift.” And while election officials can’t legally start counting mail ballots in Pennsylvania until the polls open on Election Day, Trump has made clear he wants the results known by that night.
It’s a recipe for chaos.
Dozens of officials talked through how to handle this scenario and others over the course of four hours in the EOC, in the basement of the Fire Administration Building, where long banks of large video screens stand in front of clusters of work stations. It’s a place where the city deals with everything from the coronavirus pandemic to crowd control after an Eagles Super Bowl victory — and now, potential postelection unrest.
Officials from the City Commissioners — who run elections — police, fire, the Office of Emergency Management, and other agencies, along with staffers from thePennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, left with plans they hope they’ll never need. Their meeting took place before Trump put Philadelphia on the front lines of his attack on voting by declaring in a nationally televised debate that “bad things happen” in the city’s elections.
The participants worked through how to handle civil unrest at polling places. And officials even considered how to respond to a cyberattack that publishes fake results online.
“I’m more concerned about the disinformation and misinformation about fraud than I am about the possibility and reality of fraud,” said David Thornburgh, head of the nonpartisan, good-government group Committee of Seventy, who did not attend the planning session.“It’s very destabilizing. It causes an unnecessary and even dangerous lack of confidence in our local election systems. It encourages people to question something that is foundational to our democracy.”