This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
HARRISBURG — In the weeks before the general election, Sara May-Silfee’s office was overwhelmed. Phone calls from voters were incessant. Lines of people formed outside the building to apply for and cast mail ballots. In one instance, she said, impatient voters began chants outside her office that the waiting times amounted to voter suppression.
The Monroe County elections director even got in the habit of closing her office’s shades at night, she said, because voters would knock on the windows, as late as 9, looking for assistance.
“It was a nightmare,” May-Silfee said. “Everything was a nightmare.”
Even before the pandemic emerged this spring, county election directors said they warned lawmakers and state officials that huge changes to Pennsylvania’s voting system were too much, too fast. Other states took years to implement statewide no-excuse mail voting. They had a few months.
Since the passage of Act 77, the 2019 law that made sweeping changes to voting in Pennsylvania, at least 21 election directors and deputy directors from more than a dozen of the state’s 67 counties have left or will soon leave their posts, according to an analysis by Spotlight PA and Votebeat. A dozen current and former election officials said that’s no coincidence.
“Mail-in voting has become like a second election that we have to run, that we never had to run before,” Lycoming County Elections Director Forrest Lehman said. “It has almost doubled the workload, and you know, nobody’s salaries have doubled at the same time.”
Despite these challenges, Election Day went smoothly, with officials reporting few problems. Still, the people tasked with running elections are drained from dealing with regular verbal attacks from angry voters, confused or suspicious of the process this year.
At least three directors are set to leave later this month or early next year — Luzerne County’s Shelby Watchilla’s last day will be Friday, while Crawford County’s Rebecca Little and Beaver County’s Dorene Mandity will retire in March — and more could follow, county election directors said.
“Believe me, if somebody offered me a job I would’ve left too,” May-Silfee said.
Mail ballots are sorted and counted by workers on Election Day 2020 at Northampton County Courthouse.
A ‘major loss of institutional knowledge’
The joke election officials often hear about their job, they said, is that they only have to work two days a year. But months of preparation precede each primary and general election, often with long hours in the final weeks.
Pennsylvania largely depends on county governments to pay for and administer a primary and general election each year. In addition to managing voter registration and elections, counties also assist local candidates with campaign finance filings and petitions to run for office in odd-numbered years.
There is no formal training for the high-stakes, complex work of elections administration, officials said. Some move into the job from another role in county government, others from an entirely different career. One new elections director, in Fulton County, took the job after 29 years as a nurse.
Most directors assume the role after learning from their predecessor, making the departure of so many at once a major loss of institutional knowledge.
“It’s horrible, but it’s definitely understandable,” said Lehigh County Chief Clerk Tim Benyo, whose deputy, Terri Harkins, retired in October. “The whole year has taken a toll on so many people.”
Shari Brewer loved her work as Butler County’s elections director, she said, but she submitted her resignation suddenly in April, out of frustration, and went into retirement earlier than planned.
Brewer was not getting support from county commissioners, she said, for a larger overtime budget and other new needs stemming from the voting law and the pandemic. After 10 years of Brewer running the county elections office, the commissioners were second-guessing her judgment at a critical point before the primary, she said, despite not knowing much about election administration.
“If you’re going to micromanage, you better know what you’re micromanaging,” Brewer said.
Butler County’s solicitor, H. William White, said the county would not comment on personnel matters, but that Brewer’s departure before the primary created a void that others had to fill.
Brewer had been an active proponent of bringing no-excuse mail voting to Pennsylvania for several years, she said. She studied the issue closely, and told lawmakers counties were losing poll workers.
If enough people used mail ballots, Brewer said, counties could replace voting precincts with a smaller set of “voting centers” to help voters with any in-person needs.
“We went to the lawmakers and said, ‘We’re not here asking for money, we’re here trying to save counties money,’” Brewer said.
But the pandemic created a much greater demand for mail ballots in the first year of the new law and put even more pressure on election offices already implementing many changes, Brewer said.
“You have county commissioners, and other elected officials, that have no clue what goes into administering an election, and then they make changes, and they expect you to implement them overnight,” Brewer said. “It just doesn’t happen like that. It can’t happen like that.”
Act 77 left a lot of room for interpretation and confusion, election officials said. There were questions about what to do if a ballot wasn’t in a secrecy envelope, or what to do with mail ballots that arrived after Election Day.
Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar attempted to clarify the law by issuing guidance documents to county election officials and getting legal opinions from the courts, but the rules were constantly changing.
Bill Turner, Chester County’s deputy director for emergency management, found himself managing an entirely different kind of crisis when he was asked to become acting election director in August, when Sandra Burke resigned after just 15 months in the position.
“This had all the indications, or warnings, that this could become a disaster,” he said.
With no training in the world of elections, Turner said he relied heavily on the remaining staff, who were still getting used to new and ever-changing guidance.
“It was very difficult for us to constantly shift our approach and adapt on the fly,” he said.
He and other election officials said they often turned to the county solicitor, who gave legal advice on how to implement the new voting law. Turner said he worked with Chester County’s solicitor to “develop a playbook” for this election, because Pennsylvania didn’t have one.
Mercer County Elections Director Thad Hall was used to having such a playbook when he worked as an elections director in Arizona. The secretary of state there developed — with the help of county election officials — a 500-page manual outlining everything from security at ballot drop boxes to the procedures around notifying voters that a ballot was rejected.
But when Hall took over the Mercer County elections department from Jeff Greenburg, who took a job at the National Vote at Home Institute three months before Election Day, no such manual existed.
Last-minute guidance from Boockvar’s office also had county election officials taking inconsistent approaches to how voters could “cure,” or fix technical mistakes such as a missing signature, on ballots. Some allowed voters to correct their ballots before the election or vote provisionally, while others simply rejected the ballots.
“I wasted the better part of five hours one day after the election sitting at the warehouse going through boxes trying to find applications for certain voters, because they would not believe me,” said Dauphin County Elections Director Jerry Feaser (right). “They called me a liar.”
‘They called me a liar’
The changing guidance, the pandemic, and misinformation on social media exacerbated an already challenging situation, election officials said. The increased demand for mail ballots in the primary, and later the general election, led to a spike in calls from voters on everything from assistance with the process, to checking on the status of their ballots.
To meet the deluge, election officials had to rely on help from county employees in other departments or temporary workers, who did not know enough about elections to answer most voters’ questions, they said.
Frustration about the process from voters often landed on election officials, they said, whether they were the source of the problem or not.
Several election directors said many voters forgot they had checked a box on the mail-ballot application for the primary that opted them in to automatically receive a mail ballot for the general election as well.
Some of those voters contacted election offices furious that they had been sent a ballot they wrongly believed they hadn’t asked for.
“I wasted the better part of five hours one day after the election sitting at the warehouse going through boxes trying to find applications for certain voters, because they would not believe me,” said Dauphin County Elections Director Jerry Feaser. “They called me a liar.”
The problem was exacerbated when third-party pro-voter groups sent unsolicited mail ballot applications to voters, some of whom had already returned their ballots or were planning to vote in person. Hall, in Mercer County, said voters thought the applications were coming from the county or Harrisburg.
“They designed it intentionally to make it look like [it was from us], and then we look like idiots,” Hall said.
Outside groups also appeared to be using old, inaccurate voter data, which created even more suspicion. In Lycoming County, a voter called the election office to complain that a ballot application had come in the mail for their spouse who had died 10 years ago, Lehman said.
The return address was the county’s election office.
“Boy does that get people stirred up,” he said. “And counties have to answer for all of this.”
The Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, which keeps a record of every registered voter, notified voters their ballot was on the way before the ballots were printed, Hall said. That led to a lot of calls from voters asking why they hadn’t received their ballots.
Benyo, from Lehigh County, said the SURE system — which was launched in the early 2000s — would intermittently crash, and election workers were prevented from doing any work with it for an hour or two. He said county election officials have been told a replacement voter system is coming sometime next year.
When voters called in to say they never got their ballot in the mail or confirmation their completed ballot reached the county, election officials took the heat, despite having no control over the performance of the mail
Feaser, in Dauphin County, said ballots sent to or from the north part of the county typically took at least five days to get to his office in Harrisburg, longer than most voters anticipated.
Lehman said mail from his office could take 10 days to reach the intended destination, all in the same county. And when the county sent a large batch of mail ballots, applications, or voter registration cards, some came back undeliverable, “when we know for a fact they’re a good address. It happens all the time.”
Reports of major delays in mail service proliferated during the summer, at least in part due to Trump administration cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service.
In early December, May-Silfee in Monroe County said she received a mail ballot with a Sept. 25 postmark. She said her office received calls from voters saying they never got their ballot in the mail. “I can’t answer for the mail system,” May-Silfee said.
Preparing for 2021
Election officials haven’t had much time to recover from the general election. They’re already prepping for municipal primaries in May.
Benyo’s staff is working from home for the first time this year — they had to be in the Lehigh County elections office during the first COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, but with the bulk of the work surrounding the November election finished, the elections staff began working remotely Dec. 14 as the second wave hit Lehigh County.
Still, some work remains. Benyo has to manually go through containers of ballots by Jan. 22 to find 2,100 that were randomly assigned for the state’s pilot of a risk-limiting audit, which uses a statistical formula to manually recount a random sample of cast ballots in order to confirm the outcome of an election.
He also has to mail 65,000 mail ballot applications to voters by the first Monday in February. After that, the office will start accepting candidate filings for the 2021 municipal primaries, and the election cycle starts over.
Elections Director Renee Smithkors said her small staff in Bradford County hasn’t gotten much of a break since the November election came to a close. After what she called a “very overwhelming” year trying to implement new voting changes while battling calls about misinformation, she’s trying to put the election behind her while preparing for the next one.
“We’re ready for the next year,” she said. “We’re ready for 2020 to be over.”