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A Pennsylvania poll worker explains the painstaking process of counting votes

And why Trump’s claims of voter fraud are absurd.

A poll watcher monitors the counting of ballots at the Allegheny County elections warehouse on November 6, 2020, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

“This city has a sad history of voter fraud,” said Rudy Giuliani at a press conference in Northeast Philadelphia on Saturday, the day the 2020 election was called by the Associated Press for Joe Biden. “It’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional. And we will be bringing action.”

None of his allegations are true.

When I heard that Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was accusing the state of Pennsylvania of faking the mail-in ballot results, I was astonished. I work in local government in Pennsylvania, and I volunteered for the election team through our county administrator. To do what the Trump campaign is alleging simply would not be possible.

After meticulous vote-counting across the country, Joe Biden has been publicly declared president-elect. While President Trump’s unwillingness to concede the results in favor of casting doubt on the process comes as no surprise, the president’s allegations of fraud and massive election rigging in Pennsylvania in particular are alarming. The Trump campaign has unleashed a slew of lawsuits challenging my state’s election results, claiming that the physical distance of counting monitors and the state’s acceptance of ballots received after Election Day discredits the entire process. It’s a distraction that experts believe will not stand up in court and will accomplish little for the president.

Trump’s lawsuits and actions (or lack thereof) are meant to create confusion and hamper our faith in the democratic process. Although I had a general understanding of how our elections are run, it wasn’t until I actually assisted in the processing of ballots that I realized just how much effort goes into the security of our elections. What I saw makes me believe that it would be borderline impossible to rig a small local election, let alone a statewide vote.

How the ballot-counting process works

Many in the public may not be aware of just how many people are involved in counting mail-in ballots. The process, which conforms to statewide regulations and is generally overseen by local professionals and elected officials, varies state to state. The process involved is extremely deliberate, and everyone (many of them, like myself, employees of the county) who volunteered for the work was briefed on their role in advance and received a couple of hours of on-the-job training. Each individual on a team only handles part of the process, making the work easier to learn and ensuring that ballots go past multiple sets of eyes.

The counting begins with the delivery of a precinct-sized box of anywhere between 30 and 150 ballot envelopes to one of several teams that were working until midnight on election night and in eight-hour shifts daily after that. List counters, who make up the first portion of a team, examine each mail-in envelope to ensure that the name and address written on it match with a list of voters from that precinct who applied for a ballot. Every voter whose name appears on a mail-in envelope is recorded against that list. The box of envelopes is then delivered to a processing team — in my experience, these processing teams, one of which I served on for this election, work at physically separate tables from their list counterparts.

The processing team manually counts each mail-in envelope for a specific precinct. Once a count has been established, we open each envelope and individually examine the contents. Within each envelope should be a single inner secrecy envelope, which must be devoid of any identifying information to ensure that nobody can tell how the ballot has been cast. In the course of processing ballots, we occasionally encountered submissions that were missing their inner secrecy envelope or had otherwise identifying information on them. These were physically separated from the remainder of the ballots for that precinct and marked as violations. Such errors were few and far between; I came across perhaps one secrecy ballot violation every three or four precincts, or about one error for every few hundred ballots.

After all of the secrecy envelopes have been separated from their mail-in counterparts, they are opened en masse to protect voters’ right to privacy. In this manner, we have no way of knowing which ballot corresponds to which mail-in and cannot identify who has voted for whom. Once the secrecy envelopes have been processed, the ballots are removed and individually inspected for any damage, identifying information, or other rule violations. Damaged ballots are separated from the rest to be examined and, if necessary, redone such that they will properly scan.

Once all ballots have been removed and inspected, a final count is performed. The number of damaged ballots, ballots which must be segregated for rule violations, and accepted ballots must add up to the number of mail-in envelopes that were delivered to the processing team. If all is in order, the ballots, secrecy envelopes, and mail-in envelopes are bundled together, with damaged ballots and violations for the precinct separated into color-coded folders, and the entire box delivered to the team responsible for administering the final process of counting votes. This team, with proper oversight, will scan in accepted ballots to tabulate a vote count and administer any rule violations or damaged ballots.

On top of all of this, each precinct-level ballot box is equipped with a tracking sheet. The tracking sheet provides a physical record of the number of ballots recorded by the elections team at each step of the process, from initial list-counting to the final number of ballots submitted to the vote recorders. All counts must match the initial number of reported envelopes when a precinct box is processed, and requires the individuals recording the numbers to leave their signature or initials. This provides an extra layer of security in ensuring that all ballots are accounted for and that the number of submitted envelopes matches precisely the final number of ballots.

Stoking concerns about the validity of the election is dangerous to us poll workers

It is important to note that while the granularity of the process, as well as the layers of security, form an effective shield of fraud protection, actual issues with mail-in ballots are vanishingly rare. Not once during this process did I or any of my coworkers who also volunteered encounter any problems outside of accidentally damaged ballots or missing secrecy envelopes. Even this number was barely above the single digits, far from the threshold required to swing an election.

But despite all these safeguards, that didn’t stop Trump supporters from showing up outside of the Philadelphia Convention Center, where votes were being counted, shouting for workers like myself to stop the count. Poll workers across the state have reported death threats this election year, including calls telling election workers that “this is what the Second Amendment is for, people like us,” according to the Philadelphia city commissioner.

Thankfully, as I live in a more rural county away from the major cities, my firsthand experience of this has been limited to some violent and occasionally anti-Semitic remarks online. Regardless, the disturbing rhetoric coming from some of the president’s staff increases the risk that all poll workers face, and could have a chilling effect on the turnout of these mostly volunteer workers. It also serves to discredit the fine work that our local governments do to make sure that everyone’s vote is counted fairly.

Knowing how your vote is counted should be enough to demonstrate the flaws in these mail-in ballot conspiracy theories. There are no vast piles of envelopes sitting on a garage floor, and there is no moment in such a meticulously tracked process for “ballots to suddenly appear,” as prominent figures in the Trump campaign have alleged. As someone who worked on the front lines of this process, the accusations that cities like Philadelphia are “just making ballots appear” feel as if those who know better are intentionally misleading those who haven’t seen it with their own eyes.

Kyle Brashear works in local government and volunteered for his county’s elections team to help process mail-in ballots.

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