'Swing County, USA' Prepares For Unprecedented Influx Of Ballots By Mail

Jul 21, 2020
Originally published on July 21, 2020 4:39 pm

The county government cafeteria in Northampton County, Pa., is a large, airy room with big windows and, for now, lunch tables separated by plexiglass.

But a few months from now, on Election Day, this is where the county plans to have a couple of dozen people processing what it expects could be 100,000 mail-in ballots, nearly triple what they handled in the June 2 primary and 15 times what they handled in November 2016.

The dramatic rise in mail-in ballots prompted the move of the counting operation to the cafeteria, one of many steps this swing county on the eastern edge of a battleground state is taking to prepare for this unprecedented presidential election.

"We're very supportive of it. It's just a little more work," says Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure Jr. "Based on our experience from the primary, we just don't think it's physically possible to count the potential 100,000 mail-in ballots that day."

Pennsylvania is among the handful of states that could decide the outcome of the election if it's close. It voted twice for Barack Obama before pivoting to Donald Trump in 2016.

Like many other places across the U.S., officials are anticipating a tremendous increase in the number of people voting by mail, because of changes in laws and coronavirus concerns. While there's little evidence that mail-in ballots are insecure, they do introduce logistical and other challenges.

"Every component piece of the process requires more — more dollars, more space, more staffing, more equipment. And earlier timelines," says Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar.

A voter casts a mail-in ballot at a drop box in West Chester, Pa., prior to the June 2 primary election. Statewide, Pennsylvania saw a nearly 18-fold increase in mail-in voting in the primary compared with 2016.
Matt Rourke / AP

Historically, only about 5% of Pennsylvanians voted absentee. That was already set to change this year, as Pennsylvania joined more than 30 other states in allowing voting by mail for any reason, also known as no-excuse absentee voting.

Gov. Tom Wolf hailed the new law, passed last fall, as "the biggest change to our elections in generations ... removing barriers to the voting booth and encouraging more people to vote."

Pennsylvania election officials say they expected a modest increase in mail-in voting in the 2020 primary, the first election under the new rules.

"And then COVID-19 hit," says Boockvar.

Statewide, Pennsylvania saw a nearly 18-fold increase in mail-in voting in the June 2 primary, compared with four years ago. Boockvar anticipates that 50% of the state's voters could opt for mail-in voting this fall.

Northampton County has purchased a new high-speed ballot processor ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.
Fatma Tanis / NPR

The sheer numbers, along with the complexities of counting mail-in ballots, have raised questions and lowered expectations about how soon there will be results — not just in Pennsylvania but across the country.

For months, President Trump has promoted the false narrative that mail-in voting will lead to fraud and a rigged election. To be clear, though there have been issues as the use of mail-in voting increases — such as ballots rejected for being late or unsigned — election experts say there is no evidence that voting by mail leads to rampant fraud.

But because of how time-consuming the process is, a big question remains: On election night, will voters know who is going to be the next president of the United States?

It's the "million-dollar question," says Boockvar. "I think that Nov. 3, we may not."

Boockvar is hoping the Pennsylvania legislature will pass a measure that would allow ballots to be pre-canvassed, starting as early as three weeks before Nov. 3. That process includes opening both a ballot's outer envelope and secondary privacy envelope and confirming the voter's eligibility. Under current law, this work can't start until 7 a.m. on Election Day.

The final step, feeding the ballot into a scanner that counts the vote, would still happen on Election Day under the proposed legislation.

"That last part is the fastest part of the process," Boockvar says. "It's all the other things, including literally the physical extraction of the documents in the envelope, that take a remarkable number of hours and days depending on how many ballots you get back."

Sam Chen, Republican strategist and political science professor who grew up in the steel town of Bethlehem, Pa., says he will vote by mail.
Fatma Tanis / NPR

This spring, things actually ran pretty smoothly in Northampton County, where officials proudly point out that they were the first in Pennsylvania to report election results in the June 2 primary, at around 9 p.m.

Still, they say that without the ability to pre-canvass mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day in November, same-day results are unlikely.

"We'll have significant numbers on election night, but we won't be done unless the law changes," McClure, the county executive, says.

There is already a lot of interest in how Northampton County will vote come Nov. 3. The county, about 90 minutes from both Philadelphia and New York City, is looked to as a bellwether in presidential elections.

"If you go and look back historically all the way to the early part of the last century, you'd see that the way Northampton County goes, so does Pennsylvania," says Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, who lives in the borough of Nazareth, in the center of the county. "It's really unbelievable as a predictor for the state as a whole."

Northampton County was one of three Pennsylvania counties that voted twice for Barack Obama before pivoting to Donald Trump. Trump won Pennsylvania by a mere 44,000 votes, a margin of less than 1%.

"We like to call ourselves Swing County, USA," says Sam Chen, a Republican strategist and political science professor who grew up in the steel town of Bethlehem, Pa.

Amy Hess, deputy registrar of elections for Northampton County, says extracting, unfolding and flattening out ballots is the most time-consuming part of vote counting. She's shown here with Lamont McClure Jr., the county executive.
Fatma Tanis / NPR

Chen, who did not vote for Trump in 2016, says he hasn't decided yet whom he'll support this year, though he's leaning toward former Vice President Joe Biden.

One thing Chen has decided is that he will vote by mail, and he's expecting a lot of other Republicans to do the same, despite Trump's attacks on mail-in voting.

"It's going to come down to convenience," Chen says. "Is it easier for me to vote in person?"

Others are more skeptical. Frank DeVito, an attorney and one of two Republicans on the Northampton County Election Commission, says Trump's rhetoric railing against mail-in voting is resonating with Republican voters. In recent weeks, for instance, Trump has claimed without evidence that millions of ballots could be printed by foreign countries.

"Is it possible what he's saying? I mean, yeah, in theory," says DeVito, speaking at his home in Bath, Pa., with a "Trump-Pence 2020" sign in his front yard. "Theoretically, when anybody who's a registered voter can mail a ballot in and never show up at a polling place, never sign in, it's more likely that you can commit fraud."

"On how wide of a scale is something like that going to happen?" DeVito continues. "It's likely that there will be a few paper ballots mailed to the wrong addresses and somebody will just use it. But on a systemic, widespread level, I really don't know. I think it's a real possibility."

There were already notable differences in how Republicans and Democrats chose to vote in Northampton County's June primary.

Among Democrats, 26,440 voted by mail, versus 10,051 who voted at the polls. Compare that with Republicans: 10,367 voted by mail, with 15,582 voting at the polls.

Northampton County Executive McClure, a Democrat, wants to get the word out that either form of voting is fine.

"It appears that Republicans prefer to vote in person, and we've got a great system for them, and they know their votes are going to count," McClure says. "And it appears Democrats prefer to vote by mail at this juncture."

As the county election staff members await word on whether they will be able to pre-canvass the mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day, they're already in better shape than they were for the primary. They have purchased a third high-speed envelope-opening machine, known as an enveloper, which can slice open 24,000 envelopes per hour.

McClure says he has great confidence in the technology, in the backup systems and in the people running them.

"I'd die before I let this election be rigged," he says. "There are some things that are greater in importance than a partisan victory: the sanctity and integrity of our elections."

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Will we know who won the presidency by the end of the night on November 3? Well, here's what we heard when we put that question to people either directly involved with or closely tracking the vote in Pennsylvania.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Million-dollar question (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I would probably say no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's a valid question. The answer might be no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Not confident.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think that we may not.

KELLY: Pennsylvania is among the handful of states that could decide the outcome of the election if it's close. It was a battleground state in 2016, too. Trump won but barely - a margin of less than 1%. This November Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar told me she expects a sea change in the number of Pennsylvanians casting their ballots by mail.

KATHY BOOCKVAR: I would expect that we would probably see about 50% cast by mail.

KELLY: Wow - 50%. I mean, it's stunning.

BOOCKVAR: It is stunning considering we've historically been 5%.

KELLY: Now, while there's little evidence that mail ballots are not secure, they can take longer to count. So what are the implications of that? What if results are delayed by days, even weeks? We wanted to see how Pennsylvania is preparing, so we hopped in the car and pointed north up I-95.

And we just crossed the state line crossing from Delaware over into Pennsylvania.

Keep heading north, and you arrive at the part of Pennsylvania where we're going to spend these next minutes - the Lehigh Valley, Northampton County. We're here because in a key swing state, this is a key swing region. Politically, it's about as purple as you can get - one of just three counties in the whole state that went for Barack Obama twice then swung to Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: So I'm calling the meeting to order.

KELLY: We've just pulled up to the outdoor meeting of the Democratic Women of Nazareth and Vicinity, a couple dozen women spread out and socially distanced on park benches, everybody wearing masks.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands.

KELLY: It's their first meeting since the pandemic hit. They tell us the virus makes it tough to knock on doors, so they are kicking off a postcard campaign. And they are focused - really focused - on the possibilities of voting by mail.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Can I just have a show of hands of how many people already have registered to get their mail-ins?



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I tried to get on, and they said they...



KELLY: Here's the thing. You used to have to give a reason if you wanted to vote by mail in Pennsylvania. That law changed last year. So election officials were expecting a modest increase in mail ballots for 2020. Then came the coronavirus. This spring, as the primary loomed, poll workers quit. They were worried about getting sick. Voters were worried about getting sick. Pennsylvania postponed its April primary, and by the time they held it last month, record numbers of ballots poured in by mail.

AMY HESS: This is our new office.

KELLY: Amy Hess, deputy registrar of elections for Northampton County - she's giving us a tour around the county government offices in Easton.

HESS: So this is our locked ballot room with a security camera.

KELLY: Offices which they have had to reconfigure given the unique challenges of 2020. Hess shows us where they set up tables on primary day to accommodate all the workers slicing open envelopes, extracting the ballot.

HESS: What took the longest was unfolding it and flattening it out.

KELLY: Now, in Northampton County, primary day went pretty smoothly according to county executive Lamont McClure.

LAMONT MCCLURE: We were the first county in Pennsylvania to have our complete results in.

KELLY: Really?


KELLY: Results in by 9 p.m. But on November 3 they are bracing for a tsunami - a hundred thousand mail in ballots in this county alone. Under current state law, counties cannot start confirming voter eligibility or start opening envelopes until the morning of Election Day. There is a push for the state legislature to change that in these next few weeks, a change which McClure - a Democrat - told me would make a big difference.

MCCLURE: Based on our experience from the primary, we just don't think it's physically possible to count the potential 100,000 mail-in ballots that day.

KELLY: Now, McClure is talking about a delay of hours in reporting results. But it is worth injecting here in other parts of Pennsylvania, there are still races from the June 2 primary where we don't yet have an official winner. So imagine a scenario where days, a week after the presidential election, votes are being counted, lawsuits are being filed and questions are being asked about the legitimacy of the election. This is a scenario being fed by the man trying to win reelection. The president has tweeted inaccurately about widespread mail-in ballot fraud and warned of a rigged 2020 election and that results could be delayed for months. I asked Lamont McClure if he's worried.

MCCLURE: We're not worried about fraud at all, and we're not worried about a rigged election in Northampton County. I would - I'm a Democrat. I'm going to be for Joe Biden. I'd die before I let this election be rigged.

FRANK DEVITO: Is President Trump's - is it possible what he's saying? Yeah, in theory. I mean, I think it's easier...

KELLY: This is Frank DeVito - attorney, Republican, member of the Northampton County Election Commission - a Trump Pence 2020 sign planted in his front yard. His toddler children came out to greet us, and then we sat at a picnic table, a rooster crowing from the next yard over. DeVito agrees there is no evidence that voting by mail leads to massive fraud. But he plans to vote in person, and he is sympathetic to the president's view that doing otherwise creates problems.

DEVITO: If you show up physically, you sign a paper, you vote, the chain of custody is very limited. But when things are going out to a mailbox and then back to the voter registration office sometimes weeks before the election and then more of them come in on Election Day that are being dropped off in boxes at the courthouse - the county is doing their best. It's not a free-for-all where just mail-in ballots are going to go disappearing in suitcases. I certainly don't think so. So I would give reassurances, but I would give guarded reassurances that I still think there are a lot more holes in the system.

KELLY: For the record, again, there is no proof that mail ballots have posed significant threat to election security. But public trust can be fragile. The perception of chaos can be as damaging and as polarizing as actual chaos. The local Democratic Party is already busy trying to manage expectations, pumping out the message on social media that it may take a while to know who won in Pennsylvania and the most important thing is to get an accurate count. I was curious if that message is resonating and, just generally, what's on voters' minds here - so one more stop.

We've pulled up now to Bethlehem, one of the cities in Northampton County, making our way down Main Street, which is so pretty - old, historic, brick sidewalks, benches out, people sitting on them, eating ice cream.

We walked up and down Main Street, talking with people for a while. And then we got lucky because if you were trying to capture the diversity of political views in this corner of Pennsylvania, you could not do better than these two adjacent tables on a shady sidewalk outside the Spanish tapas bar and restaurant.


KELLY: Can we say hi? We are journalists from NPR.

At the table farther from the curb, Abigail Illingworth - she's from Hellertown, another town nearby, about to start senior year in college. This is her first time voting in a presidential election.

This is quite an election to have it be your first one.

ILLINGWORTH: It sure is. Yeah, it sure is (laughter).

KELLY: Who are you voting for?

ILLINGWORTH: I do believe I will be going with Biden.

KELLY: For Biden.


KELLY: Can you give me a sense why?

ILLINGWORTH: I just do not agree with President Trump's policies or beliefs whatsoever - any of them.

KELLY: Illingworth dismisses the president's warnings of fraud and a rigged election, and she's appalled at his handling of the pandemic. Trump's long refusal to wear a mask, she says, sets a very poor example. Just a few feet away, polishing off what looked like a tiny tostada sat Iliana. She declined to give her last name for privacy reasons. She's 39 years old, works at one of the big hospitals in the Lehigh Valley, also a Trump voter.

ILIANA: I feel like he is the only president that is come in not as a politician and more of a businessman and more aware of trying to protect the economy as well as trying to limit some of the drug trafficking that's coming - going on in America as well. I definitely think that the media portrays him to be more of a bad person than he actually is.

KELLY: What about the pandemic, I asked. What do you make of how he's handled it?

ILIANA: I definitely think that, you know, it is something to be concerned about. But at the same time, I do think that the media is portraying it to be a lot bigger than what it is.

KELLY: After that, Iliana circled back a third time in our short interview to what she sees as unfair reporting on the president - fake news. On the next block under a wide green awning with Johnny's Bagel and Deli spelled across it, we'd arranged to meet Samuel Chen, GOP staffer-turned-consultant. He used to work for former Republican Gov. John Kasich, former Republican Congressman Charlie Dent and others. He has never voted for a Democrat at the top of the ticket before, but...

SAMUEL CHEN: I consider myself an undecided Republican voter who, in the moment, is leaning toward Vice President Biden.

KELLY: Leaning but not quite there yet. He wants to see who Biden picks as his running mate. Chen grew up near here. Over iced coffees, we talked about the region's reputation as a bellwether for the rest of the state and Pennsylvania's outsized role in the national outcome.

CHEN: I think the election swings on people like me and on these undecideds because we know how Texas is going to go. We know how California is going to go. We're looking at a handful of states and a handful of voters in those states.

KELLY: Chen communicated something I sensed from other people we interviewed here - the weight of responsibility they feel for making sure Pennsylvania doesn't blow it on November 3.

CHEN: Now you have the mail-in issue. There is a lot of concern among election officials, Republican and Democrat, of making sure we get this right. And how do we make sure we don't call it too early and have to retract it? But how do we make sure we're not a month afterwards and the whole country is saying, hey, Pennsylvania. Do you have election result yet? - especially if it swings on this state.

KELLY: The worst-case scenario, Sam Chen says - what happened in Florida in 2000 but updated for the Twitter era and unfolding during a pandemic. For those who need a refresher, in 2000 - Bush versus Gore - Americans waited 36 days to learn who'd won.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY PECORARO'S "HERE WE ARE AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.