Tuesday's voting woes expose danger that Pennsylvania is not ready for 2020 election
GOP Election Day Counsel Rebecca Warren addresses the problems at the polls today in a news conference. York Daily Record
Problems in one county and one state could harm the integrity of a national election.
It was about 2 a.m. the morning after Election Day 2016 when Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, addressed the Democrat’s supporters.
“Several states are too close to call,” he said.
Pennsylvania was one of those states.
The commonwealth hadn’t voted for a Republican president since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Clinton, with her deep ties to the Philadelphia suburbs, was predicted to comfortably win Pennsylvania by a few points.
It wasn’t until major news networks showed Clinton losing Pennsylvania by one point that she called Donald Trump around 2:30 a.m. to concede.
Without Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, and those in other reliably blue states that Trump painted red, it was clear Clinton had no mathematical path to the presidency.
In the end, Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes.
Election results: From hours to days
It took several hours to get those numbers – not because of broken voting machines or malfunctions in the state’s electoral system. There was just a high turnout in a contentious, presidential election year.
Fast forward to this week, in an off-cycle election year with a lower turnout than a presidential election, and realize it took York County two days to tally votes.
County officials have apologized and said they’re working toward solutions to safeguard elections in 2020. On Friday, they announced there will be a recount next week, as part of a standard procedure in every election.
Republicans threatened a lawsuit while votes were still being counted, and the Pennsylvania Department of State countered with an argument that there were “no widespread problems.”
Problems at the polls: York County struggles with new voting machines; results remain incomplete
The majority of the state saw only isolated issues, Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a statement Tuesday.
But in 2020, Pennsylvania will need to aspire to something better than “isolated issues,” analysts said.
Trust in tally 'should be bipartisan'
In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where Trump’s margin of victory was less than half the people who could fill Beaver Stadium for a Penn State game, there can be no doubts about the integrity of a next presidential election.
“One thing that should be bipartisan is trust in the vote count. It’s absolutely imperative to get it right,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “It’s important everywhere, but particularly in coveted swing states that could once again have close elections.”
Borick said sizeable problems were logged across Pennsylvania on Tuesday, with some voters reporting that systems malfunctioned or were too difficult to operate.
But it’s better that it happened now, when counties still have time to test new voting machines and work out the kinks, he said.
“The demands and stakes in 2020 are much greater,” Borick said. “Even with added security, a potential technical malfunction in a close race is a dangerous cocktail.”
And York County is a county to watch.
In 2016, York County was cited by the Cook Political Report as being one of three counties in the U.S. that pushed Trump over the top. The other two counties were Macomb County, Michigan, and Waukesha County, Wisconsin. The report said, "If those three counties had cast zero votes, Trump would have lost all three states and the election."
Could York 2020 be Miami-Dade 2000?
Trump's narrow margin of victory in Pennsylvania in 2016 was more than covered by his 60,004 margin of victory in York County.
It’s not a stretch to think, if some of the election woes from Tuesday are repeated in November 2020, York County could end up like Miami-Dade County, Florida, in the 2000 election, analysts said.
“All the conditions are there. We’re an important state, a top-tier swing state. The last election was razor thin in the commonwealth, and now there’s a new voting system being integrated,” Borick said.
If Republicans filed a lawsuit when they were winning in York County, what kind of controversy might there be in 2020 if Trump is narrowly losing the state he had narrowly won four years earlier?
“I think he’d be raising some questions for sure,” Jeffrey Lord, a Trump supporter and FOX News contributor, said of the president. “In a close state like Pennsylvania, where every vote counts, the way they are counted can’t be in question.”
But Trump, his legal team and Twitter audience, would likely be outdone by his supporters, Lord said.
The Camp Hill politico has been giving speeches throughout Pennsylvania and meeting Trump supporters, and he’s sure of their loyalty to the president.
“Their intensity is high. They are still backing him and want him to win. If they think there’s any funny business going on, you better believe they’re going to speak up,” Lord said.
Planning to prevent 2020 election problems
County officials say they are working to prevent problems in 2020.
A debriefing will be held Thursday with county officials, legislative leaders, individuals from some of the polls, and representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties, York County Solicitor Michèlle Pokrifka said.
They will put together a plan to resolve some of the issues that were seen on election day, she said.
The county is considering buying more ballot scanners and consolidating polling places, according to county spokesman Mark Walters.
“We’re talking with (voting machine vendor) Dominion for their professional counseling and holding them to account for the delay in getting results initially tallied,” he said.
The county is also searching for solutions internally.
“We could also look to do more educational outreach to help people understand the new voting system,” Walters said.
The Pennsylvania Department of State is keeping in touch with the York County elections office, but it is not overseeing it, according to state department spokeswoman Wanda Murren.
New voting systems were in use in 45 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and the overwhelming majority of voters cast their ballots with no problems, she said.
The problems in York County were attributed to an insufficient number of scanners and also to a ballot printing error that affected a handful of precincts, Murren said.
“We will continue to work with the county regarding their plans to address the issues,” she said.
The state department was also notified this week that York County and the Republican Party of Pennsylvania had entered into an agreement, filed in the York County Court of Common Pleas, that outlines the procedure for counting some ballots from two precincts that were not scanned at the polling place.
State officials are also working with Northampton County and its voting system vendor to fix an elections returns reporting issue that came to light after the polls closed, Murren said.
“In both cases, voters should know that there is no problem with the paper ballots that they cast,” she said.
The state will continue its close collaboration with counties heading into the 2020 primary and general elections “so that all may learn from the experiences of one another,” Murren said.
State officials will reinforce with the counties the need to plan effectively for the appropriate amount of voting equipment and poll worker training, she said.
The department will also work to educate voters about the new voting systems and elections reforms signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf, Murren said. Those reforms include expanded use of mail-in ballots.
In 2018, the state decided to move to a paper-record voting system, which was considered safe from electronic hacking and could produce election audits and recounts using records that voters verified themselves.
The new voting system has to be ready to go without error by the April primary and November general election, when Pennsylvania will be one of the top states to decide the presidency, analysts said.
“Regardless of who’s winning, you can’t have people leaving the polls wondering if their votes will be counted,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College. “More than the outcome and who wins, the most important thing on Election Day is the integrity of the vote.”