“We’d never seen 30,000 pieces of paper before” – a view from inside the Pennsylvania polls

Early exit polls on Nov. 3 show a high turnout in many counties across Pennsylvania. A billboard on the highway reminds drivers of the time left to cast their ballot for the 2020 election. Photo by Matteo Venieri/BU News Service

By John Terhune
BU News Service

Douglas Smith has a bushy brown mustache, an easy smile and the immense responsibility of protecting the democratic process in Erie County, Pennsylvania. As the county’s chief clerk, Smith oversees election workers and helps the County Council shape broader electoral policy. In the best of times, running an election takes months of planning.

In the midst of a global pandemic and an acrimonious political atmosphere, it proved daunting. Knowing Pennsylvania could possibly determine the next president, Smith and his team felt the weight of a nation as they raced to organize a fair election.

The city of Philadelphia saw a very high turnout in many of its precincts Nov. 3. Many voters showed their enthusiasm for their chosen candidate throughout the day. Photo by Matteo Venieri/BU News Service

It’s hard to know what you don’t know

Smith, who has spent five decades in Erie County, became chief clerk in 2003 after leaving a career in media. Despite his years of experience, this election cycle brought an entirely new wave of challenges, he said. 

“We were just doing our best,” said Smith. “It just felt like every single day there was something new we weren’t prepared for.”

By chance, every position on Smith’s election staff turned over between 2019 and 2020, meaning rookie staffers would be responsible for implementing a new paper-based voting system mandated by the state.

Then, COVID-19 arrived, adding a new wrinkle to an already challenging process. The overstretched staffers, who couldn’t do their work remotely, toiled for 10 to 12 hours per day, six or even seven days per week, Smith said. A positive test for the virus could have shut down the entire operation.

“I lived in mortal fear of someone on my staff getting COVID-19,” Smith said.

The pandemic raised new questions. How would the team train 900 poll workers while ensuring everyone maintained proper social distance? How many polling places would close their doors entirely?

Hardest of all was the surge of mail-in voting, which was new to Pennsylvania in 2020. The sheer volume of mail-in ballot requests caused unforeseen problems, Smith said.

“It required us to basically become the postal service overnight,” Smith said. “We’d never seen 30,000 pieces of paper before.”

The team tried to print mail-in ballots themselves but soon realized they would be overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the state’s new electronic ballot tracking system mistakenly told voters their ballots were on their way before their requests were even processed, Smith said. As the staff tried to keep up, anxious voters and state legislators peppered Smith with questions and complaints.

Smith, whom his colleagues described as practical and diplomatic, turned to Carl Anderson III, the chair of the election board, for support. Anderson and the rest of the board quickly agreed to hire a local printer.

It was just one of many examples of Smith working efficiently with the board, said Anderson, who told Smith that he had the board’s “one thousand percent backing.”

Douglas Smith, the chief clerk of Erie County, Pa., stands in his office in December 2020. Photo courtesy of Douglas Smith

Still, the team wasn’t ready for the June primaries, as they didn’t yet have procedures in place to handle the mountain of paper ballots, Smith said.

“It’s hard to conceive in some ways of what it’s like to open 30,000 envelopes,” Smith said. “It’s hard to know what you don’t know sometimes.”  

Luckily for the team, Joe Biden had all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination by the Pennsylvania primary, which Smith said reduced turnout by around 20% and lessened the pressure to immediately return election results.

Yet as the country turned its focus toward the general election, public scrutiny of the Erie team only grew.

Fighting for the people of all parties

Erie, a blue-collar county in the Northwestern corner of Pennsylvania, was once a Democratic stronghold, but after Barack Obama won the region by 16% in 2012, Donald Trump shocked analysts by flipping it red in 2016. With the industrial Midwest once again likely to swing the election, counties like Erie became battlegrounds for political actors hoping to give their side an edge.

While the country as a whole was more polarized than ever, the members of the Erie team were united, said Mary Rennie, the vice chair of the election board. Though Rennie and Anderson are Democrats and Smith a Republican, they said they had no problem putting their personal politics aside.

“We wanted an election process that was fair, accurate and gave people a chance to have their voices heard,” Rennie said. “Any time there was a question, we came together to support Doug, to support one another, to support safety.”

That attitude was vital, Smith said, because basic policy disagreements on the board could have paralyzed the overworked election team.

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania during the summer, forcing Smith to spend weeks gathering documents detailing the county’s election procedures.

Meanwhile, worried voters phoned Smith’s office 100 to 200 times per day, he said.

“Now you had people with a dozen questions, naturally, about mail-in voting,” Smith said. “Was it safe? Was it secure?”

It proved too much to fit into a standard 37.5-hour week, said Smith. Instead, he worked long days that he said sometimes caused resentment at home.

“I didn’t see my family a lot,” Smith said.

Smith and his wife Regina have four adult children, three of whom live nearby. During the summer, Regina hosted weekly family dinners on the shore of Lake Erie. At first, Smith was able to join, but as the election neared, the family was often ready to pack up by the time he arrived.

When Smith attended a recent dinner after the election, his wife joking referred to him as “a special guest.”

Still Smith, who Rennie calls, “a true public servant,” didn’t complain about his workload.

“We have a job that we’re asked to do for the people of all parties,” Smith said. “And I’m going to do it well.”

Facing political pressure

Not even sharp public criticism from both sides of the aisle could deter Smith.

Mere days before the election, Pennsylvania Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa called for Smith to recuse himself, claiming he could not be impartial because his wife worked as a staffer for a Republican State Senator.

According to Rennie, Smith handled the situation smoothly and professionally, brushing the tactic off as political theater.

He was just as steady when a postal worker told the right-wing Project Veritas that the Erie postmaster was illegally backdating late-arriving ballots. Though the claim was debunked, several outlets and politicians, including Trump, circulated the story, citing it as evidence of fraud in Erie.

It was unsurprising to his colleagues that Smith wasn’t rattled.

“This is part of the game, and Doug has dealt with it the entire time he’s been here,” said Anderson. “Each and every campaign exerts pressures on the board to get some sort of advantage one way or the other. We resisted all that.”

Having learned valuable lessons from the June primary, the team was prepared for the 51,000 mail-in and absentee ballots that arrived in November. The vote counting team worked five times more efficiently than they had in the Spring and managed to count 25,000 mail-in votes on election day.

Early exit polls on Nov. 3 show a high turnout in many counties across Pennsylvania. A billboard on the highway reminds drivers of the time left to cast their ballot for the 2020 election. Photo by Matteo Venieri/BU News Service

Quietly supporting democracy

Erie proved to be a bellwether once again, as Biden’s slim 1,500 vote margin of victory mirrored his similarly narrow win in the keystone state. Yet for Smith and the other members of the Erie team, the true victory was putting on a fair election.

“I was and am very proud of the job we did,” Rennie said. “The process worked.”

Smith was quick to give credit to those around him, from his secretarial staff to his bosses on the election board. He was understated about his own work, describing himself as a man just doing his job.

But Rennie said that while public servants like Smith might not look like Superman, they’re doing immeasurable good in their communities.

“It’s the Clark Kents who are quietly supporting democracy,” Rennie said. “I see Doug as one of the heroes.”

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