Lily Hay Newman
Late last October—before health officials in central China began racing to contain a mysterious outbreak of viral pneumonia, before DIY hand sanitizer tutorials flooded YouTube, before nearly 200,000 people in the US had died of Covid-19—legislators in Pennsylvania came together for a rare moment of bipartisan collaboration. For the first time since 1937, Republicans and Democrats passed a series of broad electoral reforms. Their constituents, long bound by some of the most restrictive voting rules in the nation, would now enjoy some of the most flexible. Like millions of other Americans, Pennsylvanians would be able to vote by mail without providing a reason for doing so.
“We were certainly preparing for a surge in mail-in ballots, just because people could do it now,” says Kenneth Lawrence Jr., who oversees elections in Montgomery County, a suburban and rural area just northwest of Philadelphia. With the primary scheduled for April 28, he and his colleagues had about six months to launch the expanded system. They began scaling up their mail-in operations and sending out ballot applications, helped by a new state-run online portal. Then, on March 18, Pennsylvania recorded its first Covid-19 death. A week later, lawmakers voted to delay the primary to early June. Now it wasn’t just the mail-in system that needed an overhaul; traditional polling places, ill-equipped for social distancing, would too.
Lawrence has lived in Montgomery County—Montco, as it’s often known—for more than three decades. A lifelong Democrat, he spent most of his career running public affairs for nonpartisan clients, including Merck and Temple University. In 2017, at the age of 45, he became Montco’s first Black county commissioner, initially appointed to fill a vacancy and then elected to a full term. Though he is undoubtedly losing sleep over what’s coming in November, he remains affable and efficient. Like most of his counterparts across the country, he’s focused on ensuring a fair and smooth voting process.
With a major public health crisis looming, that will be harder than ever. Montco has a population close to 831,000. In the 2016 presidential election, only 10,000 voters mailed in their ballots. In this year’s delayed primary, that number catapulted to 126,000. Lawrence found himself in a bind. The new law required that all mail-in ballots be tabulated within eight days after the election, but an older law specified that the process couldn’t begin until 7 am on Election Day. He didn’t have enough staff or equipment to make the deadline. “It took us over two weeks to count them, which is too long,” he says.
As a profession, election administration is all about risk minimization, contingency planning, and thinking on your feet. A general election in a pandemic is the equivalent of the Iditarod. Across the country, officials have suddenly had to become procurement experts. Lawrence rattles off a list: hand sanitizer, face masks, face shields, sanitizing spray, disinfecting wipes, rolls of tape to mark out 6-foot increments on the floor, envelope sealers for provisional ballots. (“People don’t want to lick the envelopes, and poll workers don’t want to open them up,” he explains.) He expects more than 200,000 applications for mail-in ballots, and he’ll at least triple the size of his staff to handle the extra workload.
The United States has suffered through other difficult votes, of course, from the fraud-ridden election of 1876, in which 101 percent of South Carolina voters turned out, to the hanging chads of 2000. Covid-19 presents a historic challenge, and snafus are inevitable—but the goal, as always, is to win voters’ trust. “There’s a famous saying that the point of an election is to convince the loser that they lost,” says Ben Adida, the executive director of VotingWorks, a nonprofit maker of open source voting equipment. “If you’ve convinced the loser, you’ve also convinced the public.”