Swing State Dispatch: How One Pennsylvania Poll Watcher Ensured Every Vote Was Counted
Journalist Johanna Schneller served for 13 hours as a poll watcher at a voting site in Northampton County, Pa. on election night this year. She writes that she was moved by how careful the process is and how difficult it would be to subvert. Photo: Logan Cyrus / AFP via Getty Images
Four years ago, noted journalist, Zoomer contributor and U.S. citizen Johanna Schneller watched and railed and tweeted as Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton to be named U.S. President. This year, she decided she couldn’t sit the election out, so she headed to her hometown of Easton, in the swing county of Northampton and swing state of Pennsylvania, to help Joe Biden’s campaign win the Nov. 3 election. This is the last of four dispatches from the U.S. and comes as Trump agrees to begin the formal transition to a Biden administration.
In the 13 hours I spent as a poll watcher on U.S. election day in Northampton County, Pa., only one person claimed that his vote was being suppressed, and I’m almost certain he was a Republican because he was speaking in conservative talking points.
That feels ironic now, given how hard Donald Trump and his cronies have been working since Nov. 3 to suppress votes for Joe Biden, who won a clear majority. In PA alone, Trump and/or Republicans filed eight lawsuits challenging the vote count. They won one — a small number of provisional ballots may be excluded from the final tally — and two are pending. But none looks likely to change the outcome and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar certified the presidential election results on Tuesday, announcing Biden won by 80,555 votes. Nevertheless, I helped that voter who complained. I not only had to — I wanted to.
I’m a Democrat and I’d been canvassing for Joe Biden for the past month. As well, I’d been approved to be a poll watcher — an unpaid observer who sits in a polling place and looks out for irregularities to help keep the vote honest. (One Democrat and one Republican poll watcher were allowed at each polling place, but we didn’t identify our party to voters.) I’d taken a three-hour Zoom course that explained all the rules and duties, run by bright-eyed young people. (“Over to you, Amanda!” “Thanks so much, Ashley!”)
So there I sat on Nov. 3, six feet away (by law) from the voting machine in the meeting hall of Trinity Episcopal Church, the poll for Easton Ward 2, wearing my “Voter Protection” ID on a lanyard. I’d arrived at 6:30 a.m. to observe that when the voting machine was turned on, its count stood at 0. And I was there at 8:05 p.m., when the machine was shut down.
In between, I made small talk with the Republican poll watcher (middle-aged, white, soft-spoken), a high-school debate coach who puffed with pride over his best student, a girl who’d won the state championship. I kept an eye on Kevin (middle-aged, white, easy-going), the poll worker who recorded each voter and made sure they were registered. I observed Cheryl (middle-aged, Black, boundlessly energetic), the poll worker who, for every voter, disinfected the voting machine’s touch screen, ushered them into the booth and made sure she heard the bell that indicated when a ballot had been cast.
I watched the Judge of Elections, Sharon (middle-aged, white, stickler re: the rules), as she dealt with voters’ problems. Some wanted to turn in their mail-in ballots and vote on the machine instead, which meant Sharon had to destroy their mail-in ballots and put the pieces in sealed envelopes. Other voters had requested but never received mail-in ballots or had moved and weren’t registered in Easton Ward 2. They had to use a provisional ballot, which Sharon had to observe and seal in a different set of envelopes, which are kept separate until county officials reviewed them.
When Sharon, Kevin and Cheryl shut the voting machine down, I watched it spit out the final tallies, which they checked against those recorded on paper (they matched). I watched them remove the locked box containing the ballots from the voting machine. I watched them zip the box into a padded bag and then lock the bag’s zipper with a zip tie, so Sharon could take it to the courthouse where the count would be verified. And I watched them tape a copy of the tally to the polling-place door: 336 votes cast, 194 for Biden, 132 for Trump, eight for the Libertarian candidate, one write-in and one person who didn’t vote for president but voted for other offices, such as state treasurer or U.S. congress.
Easton Ward 2 turned out to be typical of the 154 precincts in Northampton County. Countywide, 172,065 ballots were cast (96,282 on election day; 73,914 mail-in; 1,869 provisional). That’s a stunning turnout: the county has 227,371 registered voters, which means 75.68 per cent voted. Of them, 84,847 voted for Biden, and 83,732 voted for Trump. It was a difference of 1,115 votes.
I’m getting this granular because I was moved by how careful the process is, how specific — how many checks there are, how difficult it would be to subvert. Every polling place, I’d wager, is run by Kevins and Cheryls and Sharons, dedicated public servants who are also teachers and retail workers and county clerks, who have worked the polls for years, who just want people to vote.
Again and again in my poll-watcher training seminar, the Ashleys and Amandas would say, “Protect every vote — that’s how we’ll win,” and “We don’t want anyone to leave without voting” and “Democrats don’t challenge votes.” They gave me lists of dos (ID is only required if a person is voting for the first time or for the first time at this polling place) and don’ts (voter intimidation is illegal; cops have to stay 100 feet away from a polling place; never photograph or videotape voters). “Solve problems; don’t create them.” “Watch for suppression; report problems you see.” “We want to be able to brag about how we helped voters.”
And here’s the thing — it all worked, beautifully. Most of my 13 hours in that meeting hall were peaceful and delightful. Easton Ward 2 is a diverse place — Black, white, Latinx, Asian, old, young, families, singles, working class, white collar — thanks to varied, inexpensive housing stock and the newish highway that connects it to New York City. At 7 a.m., at least 50 voters were waiting in line and, until things slowed at 9:30 a.m., most people waited an hour. But they were cheerful, talking to each other. I had bags of Halloween candy, which I passed up and down the line. Parents brought their kids with them into the voting booth so they could see how it works. Several voters asked after Cheryl’s folks, who have diabetes. An older guy using a walker found out he was at the wrong poll, and another voter offered him a lift to the correct one. I had to speak up for a voter only once, to remind Kevin that a paycheque was an acceptable form of ID.
Once an hour, when the heating system would kick in and the old pipes would screech like they were being twisted, the poll workers and I would burst out laughing and comment on how it startled us every time. When a lull fell at 3 p.m., we chipped in on a pizza, and I popped across the town square — which dates to 1752 and, since 1900, sports a 23-metre statue commemorating Union Army members from Easton who died in the U.S. Civil War — to pick it up. Every few hours, I’d report via text to the Pennsylvania Democrats, and my contact there would tell me it was much the same at polls across the state: calm. There were some lines but nothing onerous and few major conflicts.
So at 7 p.m., when the unhappy voter — I’ll call him Guy — rolled in with his wife, we all felt the temperature in the room change. He looked about 40. White, sandy hair, 6’2”, broad shoulders, deep, booming voice. He was wearing a mask but he kept pulling it down to talk. “Listen up,” he said to Kevin, the second he walked in. “I moved and, when I changed my address on my driver’s licence, the clerk said it automatically changed my voter registration.”
Kevin checked his rolls. “Unfortunately, that clerk gave you incorrect information,” he said. “Your wife is registered here. You’re registered under your old address. You have an hour to get to your old polling place or you can—”
Guy cut him off. “I knew it,” he said loudly. He knew there would be “bullshit.” He knew all about Pennsylvania, the governor (a Democrat), “the corruption.” He didn’t have time to drive to his old polling place “as you know very well.” The hand that was pulling his mask down was bunched in a fist. While Cheryl quietly escorted Guy’s wife to the voting machine, Guy leaned over the Plexiglas partition that Kevin was seated behind. “Why would the woman at the DMV tell me that, huh?”
Kevin stood up. I did, too. Kevin didn’t know why the DMV clerk had told him that. He was sorry. Guy could still cast a provisional ballot.
“What the fuck?” Guy yelled.
“Excuse me,” I said, waving my voter protection badge. “I have a printout of the voting rules.” (It came with the badge.) “Would you like to read them?”
Guy’s wife, who was now finished voting, stood anxiously by as Guy read the rules. He scowled. But he moved down to where Sharon was to fill out his provisional ballot. Kevin and I widened our eyes at each other and sat down.
In a minute, we were on our feet again because now Guy was shouting at Sharon. “Don’t touch my ballot!” he hollered. She explained that she had to be the one to seal the envelope. “You’ll see my votes!” he yelled. She promised that she never looked. “And we’re supposed to believe that?” he sputtered.
Kevin said, “Sir, please lower your voice.” Guy’s wife looked like she’d evaporated, like you could put your arm right through her.
“Are we done here?” Guy asked Sharon, still at full volume. She told him yes, his vote was complete. “Then fuck you,” he said to her. “And fuck you and fuck you” — to Cheryl and me — “and fuuuuuccck yooouuu” to Kevin.
“Nice,” Kevin said. Guy left.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to Guy’s wife.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said, and scooted after him.
I’ve been thinking about Guy, as I’ve watched Trump’s appalling selfishness, his childish refusal to concede his loss, his flagrantly racist attempts to disenfranchise votes in cities with majority Black populations. I’ve been thinking about how quickly one person can turn the democratic process from something civil, helpful and joyful even into something suspicious, hostile and aggrieved. I’m sure Guy believes he was cheated. I’m certain he wasn’t. I wonder if he’s picked up on the irony, that it’s Trump who doesn’t want his provisional vote to be counted.
A difference of 1,115 votes. The final tallies weren’t that close in most of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Trump won handily in rural ones. By contrast, Biden won Philadelphia County by 471,305 votes. (He won the state by more than 80,000.) But I knew Northampton County would be a squeaker — that’s why I went there.
What I didn’t realize and what I came to know after knocking on nearly 1,000 doors was how many preconceptions I had about who votes. I would step onto a front porch that reeked of cat urine or one so crammed with broken furniture that it was clear a hoarder lived there; I would clamber up rusting fire stairs to a plywood-faced apartment above a pizza joint or pick my way through a sea of discarded red Solo cups in Lehigh University student housing or rap on the locked sliding door of a senior-living facility and I would think, “What is the point? Could this person possibly care about the election?” I’m ashamed of that, ashamed of how classist I didn’t know I was.
Because there was only one way to tell if the people behind those doors cared, and that was to ask if they were they going to vote. That was the script the Biden campaign had given canvassers. Not in-depth questions about policy. Just practicalities: “Did you receive your mail-in ballot? Do you know what to do with it? Do you know where your polling place is? Do you have a plan to get there?”
About 500 doors in, I finally got it. I wasn’t there to sway people’s opinions. They knew their opinions. I was at their door to give them one last reason to vote.
Guy was a jackass, but he showed up and he wanted his vote to count. I am all in on that because I have now seen democracy close up, porch by porch, person by person. Every vote is just one vote. So one vote is everything.