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If Pennsylvania Is Going To Flood Elections With Mail-In Ballots, We Need A Flood Of Poll Watchers

People receiving voting material from overseer table before casting votes.
Image CreditEdmond Dantès/Pexels

The current regime and legislation afford only an extremely limited view of the Philadelphia ballot counting.


With the score tied in the 10th inning of game three of the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, a Reds batter bunted with one man on base. Boston’s catcher, Carlton Fisk, quickly pounced on the ball, but the batter got in the way. Fisk’s throw to second went wild and the runner on base eventually scored, but the umpire refused to call interference. The call remains controversial to this day, part of baseball lore with some believing the call deprived the Red Sox of a World Series win.

Major League Baseball made great strides 33 years later when it instituted instant replay. Now both the decision-makers and fans have access to a clear — and identical — view of what happens on the field. Had that technology been available in 1975, maybe the transparency would have discouraged some of the bickering.

But when details remain hidden, people often make assumptions about what they cannot clearly observe. This seeds doubt. 

When Pennsylvania counted its ballots in 2020, observers simply could not see what was happening in many counties in Pennsylvania, especially the larger ones like Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania legislature had just changed the law, no longer requiring an excuse to vote on a paper mail ballot before election day. Almost the same laws that historically applied to processing a limited number of paper absentee ballots remained in place for the thousands — or in larger counties, hundreds of thousands — of paper mail ballots. 

Pennsylvanians, and the entire country, soon learned that the laws for absentee balloting to mail-in balloting might have needed a bit more tweaking. 

Pennsylvania law allows for watchers to “be present when the envelopes containing official absentee ballots and mail-in ballots are opened and when such ballots are counted and recorded.” Another section of the law allows for “adequate accommodations for the watchers and attorneys.” Yet another section states that “one representative from each political party shall be permitted to remain in the room.” 

That type of wording may have been acceptable before 2019 when only a small percentage of Pennsylvanians voted absentee by mail, and only after naming a reason why they could not make it to the polls. The opening and counting of ballots occurred in a room by hand at the election office where watchers who were “present” or “in the room” had an appropriate view because everything occurred within a few feet of where they were standing, by virtue of the size of the room.

When Pennsylvanians no longer needed an excuse, the number of ballots cast by mail skyrocketed. In Philadelphia in 2020, the counting took place in its gargantuan Convention Center, using extractors, scanners, and sorters to process hundreds of thousands of ballots.  Allowing watchers to be “present” or “in the room” took on a whole different meaning — standing in an office watching workers open ballots by hand differs significantly from standing in a massive convention center behind parade gates. 

Litigation over this issue reached a fever pitch. Republicans wanted meaningful access.  However, in 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that “the [Pennsylvania] Election Code does not specify minimum distance parameters for the location of such representatives.”

The next year, Philadelphia moved ballot counting from the Convention Center to a large warehouse. As taxpayer-funded workers extract, scan, sort, and count ballots, both distance and barriers continue to ensure that observers, even if they remain “present” or “in the room,” cannot ascertain what is actually happening in such a large space. This foments discontent.  

Just like that disputed 1975 play involving Carlton Fisk and the runner that may or may not have gotten in his way, the current regime affords only an extremely limited view of the Philadelphia ballot counting. In turn, people continue to wonder what exactly happens in that large warehouse, especially out of the immediate sight line of the observers or so far away that details remain murky. 

Instituting the transparency of instant replay did not extinguish the arguments surrounding calls by Major League Umpires. However, baseball fans at least have the exact same information as the umpires — and can squabble over their conclusions, rather than feeling as though they were shut out of the proper angle to witness the play.  

Election officials, especially those in Philadelphia, should take notice.  

Insisting that “present” or “in the room” should be interpreted so literally as to deprive any meaningful observation by stakeholders does not build trust in the process. Opaqueness surrounding ballot counting should never be acceptable in a democracy. Stakeholders — citizens, voters, candidates, political parties, and the press — should at least have the exact same information regarding the counting of ballots as the taxpayer-funded worker doing the processing. 

The strength of a vibrant self-government demands it.

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