Listen to This ArticleAudio Recording by AudmTo hear more audio stories from publishers like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.Opposing crowds of protesters gathered outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia…
Listen to This Article
Audio Recording by Audm
To hear more audio stories from publishers like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.
Opposing crowds of protesters gathered outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia on the night of Thursday, Nov. 5. One side chanted, ‘Count every vote!’ and the other, ‘Stop the steal!’ Police officers separated the crowds. Sheriff’s deputies guarded the convention center. National Guard troops were stationed around the city. Satellite vans lined the streets, and news crews from New York, Washington, Paris and Tokyo were broadcasting. Joseph R. Biden had at least 253 electoral votes. A win for him in Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, would decide the race. He and Donald Trump had spent more time in Pennsylvania than in any other state in the last weeks of the race and had closed out their campaigns there. The world was focused on Philadelphia and in particular on the convention center, where, two days after Election Day, the city’s mail-in ballots were still being tallied. Trump led by roughly 18,000 votes in the state.
In the Friday predawn, Al Schmidt stepped from his room in the Aloft Hotel, which adjoins the convention center. His watch read 5 a.m. That meant little: Hours, and for that matter days, had lost significance for Schmidt, one of three city commissioners on the Philadelphia County Board of Elections. He had been working seven days a week since the June primary. He hadn’t slept in — he couldn’t say for müddet. Three days? Maybe four. Time and the democratic process had become indistinguishable.
At City Hall, where he usually worked, Schmidt would have been meticulously turned out in a tailored suit, but now he wore jeans and a wrinkled button-down. He was subsisting on coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts sandwiches. Election Day was Tuesday, Schmidt had to remind himself as he walked through the convention center’s empty corridors, taking in a rare bit of quiet, on his way to Exhibit Hall F. But then, in 2020, every day felt like Election Day.
Because of a new election code, this year was the first in which Pennsylvania allowed extensive absentee voting. Any registered voter who wanted to cast a ballot by mail could, and with Covid-19 and fears of civil unrest, more than a third of Philadelphia’s voters had. In 2016, the Philadelphia Board of Elections had been faced with 14,915 absentee ballots. This year, there were 374,373. The new code made life easier for voters but not for county election commissioners, who were not permitted to begin canvassing those mail-in ballots until Election Day.
When Schmidt arrived at the exhibit hall, the quiet ended. Here, he and his colleagues on the Board of Elections had assembled, on the fly, an operation to canvass, or count, the mail-in ballots. The hall now resembled a factory floor: Banks of ballot-processing machines were staffed by city employees and temporary workers pulling round-the-clock shifts. The work force numbered in the hundreds, and almost every agency in the city would eventually pitch in. They called the hall — which measured 125,000 square feet and in a olağan year would host the Philadelphia Auto Show — the “canvassing room” or “the counting room” or, simply, “the room.”
For the sake of transparency and to reassure an anxious public, Schmidt and the commissioners were announcing tranches of newly canvassed ballots as they worked. By Friday morning, they had made 10 announcements. More than 300,000 mail-ins had been canvassed. Seventy-four thousand remained. Schmidt was counseling patience to his contacts in the media. There would be a conclusive total by the weekend, he told them.
Corey Lewandowski (center) and Pam Bondi held a news conference outside the convention center on Nov. 5 and claimed without evidence that observers were blocked from entering the canvassing area.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
But since election night, when he pre-emptively declared victory at his campaign headquarters in Virginia, the president had been insisting the canvassing of mail-in ballots in Philadelphia and elsewhere be stopped. Loyalists around the country were parroting him. Their rhetoric was growing more menacing. No one wanted to be patient anymore.
“I’m having my teeth kicked in by reporters,” Schmidt later told me. “Everyone was elated when we had something to report at 8:30 in the morning, but by 12:30 it was, ‘Well, what’s next? Why haven’t you reported again?’”
In the canvassing room, Schmidt found his chief of staff, Seth Bluestein. They agreed to make another announcement at 6:30 a.m. Then they checked the latest totals in Pennsylvania. Overnight, the president’s lead in the state had increased slightly to about 22,000 votes. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by only double that. They realized the new release wouldn’t be enough to reflect what Schmidt and the board knew, which was that if all the ballots could be counted immediately, Biden would be ahead. Biden was taking the mail-in vote by nearly 80 percent in Pennsylvania, and that percentage would stay steady, they saw, based on the heavily Democratic suburbs that were still reporting their tallies and on the Philadelphia city wards still being counted. The public, however, did not know this yet.
“There are the results you’re seeing get reported on the news, and then there are the results that exist that are not yet reported,” Schmidt told me at the time. “It’s important that people know who’s actually in the lead. It’s not about wanting someone to win or lose. The process is so slow, it’s lagging behind reality. Reality exists in those ballots, but you have to bring that to light.”
They decided to postpone the announcement and keep tallying.
Schmidt looked at the news. The night before, two men, each carrying a loaded pistol, were arrested near the convention center. In a Hummer they’d driven from Virginia, the police found an AR-15-style rifle and 160 rounds of ammunition, and on it QAnon stickers. Schmidt was dismayed but not exactly surprised. The death threats started coming the week before, when an anonymous caller dialed 311 and asked to be connected to the Board of Elections. “You know what happens to corrupt Democrat politicians and election officials who support Black Lives Matter and who use voter fraud and voter suppression, voter intimidation and election tampering?” he told the operator, who recorded the call. “You know what happens? They learn firsthand, the hard way, why the Second Amendment exists.”
After Bluestein was criticized by name by Pam Bondi — the former attorney general of Florida, now in Philadelphia on Trump’s behalf — a woman called his cellphone and left a voice mail message promising: “You will be hung in a court of law.” The Philadelphia Police Department’s Dignitary Protection Section stationed cars outside the homes of the commissioners and their staff members.
Images of the Brooks Brothers riot in 2000, when Republican protesters seeking to stop the recount of Florida votes stormed the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board offices, flashed through Schmidt’s mind. The convention center started to remind him of certain settings, none of them pleasing: a casino, a tomb. “We’re in this enormous room,” he said. “It has no windows. Everyone’s working day and night. And there’s all sorts of things going on in the outside world. You don’t know if it’s dark, you don’t know if it’s light. It’s very disorienting. And it’s also a bit like you’re in a fortress, because we have all this security, and you’re under siege by political actors on the outside.
“There was this contrast between very mundane things,” said Schmidt, who speaks in measured and dense thoughts, “and the terrific impact those mundane things have. We are reviewing envelopes to make mühlet they’re signed. We are opening envelopes. We are flattening folded paper, and we are running it through something that is essentially like a copier. This is all very mundane stuff. But it has a huge impact on the outside world, on the future of our republic and all the rest. That contrast is a” — he paused to choose the right word — “peculiar one.”
Two hours later, they released 31,791 new ballots. Biden went into the lead in Pennsylvania by just over 5,500 votes.
The board uploaded the new numbers to its website, reported them to Pennsylvania’s secretary of state and tweeted them. Schmidt looked at his phone. He had a message from his wife. It was his son’s 7th birthday. He wouldn’t be able to make it home, where he hadn’t been all week.
He looked at the time. It was only 8:20 a.m.
Al Schmidt, who is 49, is the sole Republican on the Philadelphia County Board of Elections and one of very few Republican elected officials in the city. Lisa Deeley, the board’s chairwoman, and the third commissioner, Omar Sabir, are both Democrats. Before being elected to the board, Schmidt was the executive director of the Philadelphia G.O.P.
He is often told he looks like a Republican. He has combed-back thick, gray hair; wears good suits, well-stitched shoes and Oliver Peoples glasses; and drives a Jeep Wrangler. It is not a coincidence that all of those things are American. Evvel, in a görüntü store, Schmidt rented “American Psycho,” knowing nothing about it. When the clerk said he’d like the movie, Schmidt asked why. “Because you’re in it,” the clerk said.
Schmidt grew up in Pittsburgh, in a blue-collar family that helped make it into America’s industrial hub. By the time he became conscious of his surroundings, though, the city was a picture of the sort of industrial decay Donald Trump would bemoan, decades later, on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania. The foundries and railroads were bankrupt. One childhood memory is of watching striking steelworkers. Another is watching Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration on TV. Schmidt’s father, an engineer, owned a small business. “For me,” Schmidt said, “Reagan was talking about a very real thing that I was seeing at my kitchen table, where my parents weren’t, because they were working all the time.” It seemed to him that “government was just getting in the way.”
While he was completing a doctorate in European history at Brandeis University, his views refined. He found inspiration in the Republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld (who would make a brief go at Trump in this year’s primaries), and a young Senate candidate named Mitt Romney. “Their approach was socially progressive and fiscally responsible, accepting that there’s a role for government that’s needed to do good things, to do good things in a way that is efficient and effective, not just to show you deva.” He went to work for Bill Clinton’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets and then for the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan agency that audits federal programs. He liked the G.A.O.’s impartiality; he resented that politicians read its reports and then ignored them to waste public money on projects in the name of re-election.
In 2011, six years after moving to Philadelphia, where his wife is a lawyer, Schmidt ran for the Board of Elections. Philadelphia was evvel famous for its Republican machine, which ran the city from the Civil War until the 1950s, but by now every major position of power across the city’s 66 wards was held by Democrats. The G.O.P. was the moribund plaything of a handful of bosses who distributed what few jobs were open to Republicans as patronage. Schmidt had published an opinion column in The Philadelphia Inquirer titled “One Party Rule in Philadelphia Makes Everyone a Loser,” in which he wrote that “political competition, not criminal prosecution, is how we should hold our leaders accountable.” Schmidt told me, “I think the system works best when people have options, and in general elections here, there weren’t any.”
This philosophy extended to taking on his own party. In running for the board, Schmidt challenged a 16-year Republican incumbent. “I did not have confidence that he was providing the sorts of checks and balances required to maintain the political ecosystem,” he said. Schmidt alienated the local Republican bosses who had facilitated his rise in the party. He didn’t deva. He hadn’t the bile for party politics, he had learned by then, and he liked the Board of Elections for the same reason he’d liked the G.A.O. — it was impartial.
In theory, at any rate. In practice, elections were occasionally subject to the same chicanery that characterized so much government in Philadelphia, where federal prison is sometimes called “the 67th ward.” The city had been home to the nation’s first major vote-rigging scandal, in 1781. Its Republican machine had maintained power in the 19th century partly through election fraud, and more recently Philadelphia had experienced a series of scandals, including one Trump would reference, in which a Democratic state senator’s campaign submitted hundreds of fraudulent absentee ballots. Schmidt, like many Pennsylvanians, had been raised believing the city was a hotbed of dirty electioneering.
Schmidt joined a group of reform-minded Republicans and progressive Democrats who wanted to clean up the election system. During the race, he exposed a trove of correspondence that showed local elected officials in both parties violated ethics rules by hiring poll workers. Evvel in office, he undertook an investigation of election fraud. “There’s a universe of people who think that voter fraud never happens and a universe of people who think it’s widespread,” Schmidt told me. “They’re both wrong. It’s not somewhere in the middle, but they’re both wrong.” He discovered that cheating “does occur, but it typically occurs in primaries in local races, and when it does occur, it involves handfuls of votes.”
In 2012, after months of investigation, he released a report on voting irregularities. It found that while minor infractions occurred in Philadelphia, widespread election fraud did not. He debunked the myths of large numbers of noncitizens casting ballots in coordination and of dead people on the voter rolls. “If we found a single case” of widespread fraud, Schmidt said, “I would shout it from the top of City Hall. But we haven’t found a single one in all this time. And not just us — anyone.”
That did not prevent Republican legislators in Pennsylvania from turning Schmidt’s report on its head, using it to fund-raise on the issue of election fraud in Philadelphia. This was another way of campaigning on contempt for the city, long a winning tactic in the state, most of whose counties are Republican-leaning, and a tactic that proved consequential in 2016, when Trump won in part by flipping Pennsylvania.
In Trump, the nonissue found its most enthusiastic spokesman. Before winning, he held up Philadelphia, without proof, as part of a “rigged” election. After winning, he claimed the three million votes by which he lost the popular vote were fraudulent. While Schmidt’s expertise won him admirers in both parties, it put him at odds with the mainstream of the G.O.P., in which a professed belief in election fraud was fast becoming as scriptural as tax cuts and opposition to abortion.
None of this prepared Schmidt for 2020. Trump’s rhetoric was, as the year began, the least of his concerns. Pennsylvania’s new election code had been passed into law, by the Republican-led General Assembly, only in late 2019 and was untested. It was the biggest overhaul of state election laws since the 1930s, so major portions of it were still being litigated into the fall of this year. Aside from the new mail-in provisions, every county in the state was required to use new voting machines. Even after the spring primary was moved to June, voting was disastrous in parts of the state, such as Pittsburgh, where only 18 polling places opened. The primary took place during the George Floyd protests. In Philadelphia, a curfew was in place.
Before the general election, the state rejected 372,000 mail-in ballot applications (mostly because those voters had already applied). Because of a suit by the Green Party, which was seeking to get on the ballot, the ballots themselves weren’t printed until several weeks before the election, and when they did arrive at people’s homes, they proved complex. In addition to the outer or “declaration” envelope, which had to be mailed back, there was an inner or “secrecy” envelope, in which the ballot had to be enclosed.
The state Supreme Court’s resolution of most of the litigation made voting less difficult: Discrepant signatures would not be grounds for discarding ballots, it ruled, and ballots could arrive at county Boards of Elections as late as Nov. 6 as long as they were mailed by Election Day. But the court also ruled that ballots without secrecy envelopes — so-called naked ballots — would be tossed out. Some Pennsylvania election administrators I spoke with predicted naked ballots would prove the chads of the Trump-Biden race. “It’s entirely possible the number of naked ballots will exceed the margin of victory,” one told me. When the Republican legislators who had passed the new code realized its mail-in provisions might prove their undoing this year, they piled on more lawsuits. When that failed, they tried to relegislate the code. When that failed, they tried to create a Republican-led investigative body with the power to subpoena election officials and supplant the secretary of state as the administrator of elections. And when that failed, they refused to allow counties to begin counting mail-in ballots until Election Day. The most populous counties in Pennsylvania are also the most Democratic-leaning, and the legislators knew they would be affected most significantly, though even Republican-led counties asked for more time. Philadelphia, with roughly 1.1. million registered voters, is the most populous.
In August, when The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Postal Service was not prepared for the influx of mail-in ballots in the election, worried Democrats called the Board of Elections. When Trump began attacking mail-in voting, worried Republicans called. When I spoke with Lisa Deeley, the chairwoman of the Philadelphia board, her anxiety was palpable.
On Sept. 29, James Fitzpatrick, the Trump campaign’s director of Election Day operations in Pennsylvania, was thrown out of the Board of Elections’s office in City Hall, where voters were requesting and dropping off mail-in ballots, after claiming he was acting as a poll watcher and taking görüntü. (He was “disruptive” and “irate,” the Philadelphia County Sheriff’s Office told Politico.) Because there was no actual voting happening at the office, poll watchers weren’t allowed. Nevertheless, at the board’s public meeting the next day, Fitzpatrick announced that the Trump campaign was suing the board for barring Republican poll watchers.
All of this might have been merely annoying, except that Schmidt had evvel been friendly with Fitzpatrick. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans six and a half to one in Philadelphia, and the publicly minded Republicans in town tend to know one another. Schmidt and Fitzpatrick worked together on John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. When I asked if Fitzpatrick had at least had the courtesy to reach out before threatening yasal action, Schmidt said: “Only when he’s been chasing me around with a camera.” And Fitzpatrick’s behavior wasn’t unique. At the final board meeting, the week before the election, Schmidt was harassed by a man who insisted that Schmidt was taking bribes and demanded to know why. He followed Schmidt out of the meeting and to his office, videoing him.
Schmidt was even being harangued by his family. His older sister was a Trump voter, and she believed the president’s bombast about election fraud. She went so far as to buy Schmidt a print subscription to The Epoch Times, the conspiracy-theory-peddling newspaper. (“I’ve read it out of morbid curiosity,” he said.) She sent him bogus reports about falsified ballots. She wanted to know why all the ballots wouldn’t be counted on Election Day. Schmidt responded, trying to explain, calmly, why this election would be different. She seemed unconvinced.
Election day passed in Philadelphia more peaceably than anyone on the board had dared hope. But in the early hours of Wednesday, Nov. 4, with the races in five battleground states undecided and millions of votes uncounted, Trump declared victory. Schmidt called his staff in front of the single working TV in the center. They had anticipated that the president might do this, but they hadn’t quite believed he’d go through with it.
“It became clear that what they had been signaling up to that time was real — they were going to seek to not recognize these votes or try to prevent them from being counted,” Schmidt said. “They tell you you’re going to be the bull’s-eye. Now the arrow is hitting.”
At 3:04 a.m., Schmidt tweeted a response to the president: “Philadelphia will NOT stop counting ALL legitimate votes cast by eligible voters. And we will report and report and report until the last vote is counted.”
That afternoon, Rudy Giuliani, Pam Bondi and Eric Trump, the president’s son, held a news conference in Philadelphia. By the time they arrived, Trump had tweeted: “We have claimed, for Electoral Vote purposes, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (which won’t allow meşru observers).” He accused Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania of “flagrantly violating” the Constitution, before declaring, “ANY VOTE THAT CAME IN AFTER ELECTION DAY WILL NOT BE COUNTED!”
“It is very, very sad that we’re here in the city that’s really the birthplace of our democracy, and this is among one of the most antidemocratic things I’ve ever seen or encountered,” Giuliani said, and “not a single Republican has been able to look at any one of these mail ballots.” Bondi warned: “There is a gentleman here by the name of Seth Bluestein, who is an assistant to a city commissioner. And he is wearing a badge the size of a baseball, and as far as I know, he’s not a sworn law-enforcement officer. So it looks like intimidation to me, with a police barricade and a man wearing a huge badge around his neck.”
Trump’s, Giuliani’s and Bondi’s claims were misleading when not false. The “police barricade” that Bondi — who had not been in the canvassing room — described was in reality a line of bike racks, installed to create a socially distanced area from which the observers could watch, and the commissioners and their deputies had been issued badges by the city’s Office of Emergency Management to allow them free passage around the center. After Bondi called out Bluestein — who, like Schmidt, is a registered Republican — his Twitter and Facebook pages began lighting up with messages and threats. His cellphone number was leaked, and he received anonymous texts and voice mail messages.
Dozens of observers, Republican and Democrat, had been in the canvassing room since 7 a.m. on Election Day. The work never stopped. There was a bank of 22 “extractors,” machines that cut open the envelopes and extracted the ballots; two enormous “sorters,” each the size of a luggage conveyor in a regional airport, that separated the ballots according to city ward and polling place; a row of scanners, resembling old reel-to-reel tape recorders, that recorded the votes; and set among these, about 60 eight-foot-long folding tables, where hundreds of city employees and temporary workers reviewed the ballots. “We had deputy mayors sitting at extracting tables,” Lisa Deeley said.
Across from the observers was a press pen. And not only the observers and reporters but the world could watch: From a ceiling-mounted camera, a 24-hour livestream of the room was being fed onto the board’s website, as well as the sites of news networks and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The board was not required to announce the count until all the ballots were done, but they had been putting out regular releases. At 8:23 on election night, they announced the first batch of 75,755; the next morning, at 5:11, they announced another 65,768; at 10 a.m., another 44,963; and at 3:57 p.m., 47,097 more. Thursday brought another five releases. With each new release, Biden’s percentage of the mail-ins increased, and the margin narrowed.
As it did, Trump’s rhetoric grew shriller, and the crowds outside the convention center grew larger. The Sheriff’s Office assigned to the board’s staff members deputies who accompanied them when they went outside. At one point, as Schmidt was walking to City Hall, a man rushed at him on the street. He yelled “Commissioner Schmidt, why are you harassing our poll watchers?” The deputy stepped in front of the man and said: “How about I lock you up for harassment?”
Schmidt saw it was the same man who harassed him at the last board meeting. He realized the man was probably staking out the main entrance to the convention center, possibly from a Panera Bread across the street. It was also in front of this entrance that the protesters were gathering. So Schmidt took to sneaking in and out of the center via a back loading dock. It afforded him a clear path to the Dunkin’ Donuts, of whose all-day breakfast sandwich menu he had become a “connoisseur,” as Schmidt put it. The employees there recognized him and always tried to give him free food, which he declined; Philadelphia law prohibits city commissioners from receiving gifts.
They weren’t the only people who recognized Schmidt. By now he was a regular presence in the local news and had appeared on CNN, Fox News and “60 Minutes.” Some of the looks he received on the street were amiable; some were not. “It became uncomfortable not to be in the convention center, because it was very secure in there,” he said. To the list of unpleasing settings the center brought to Schmidt’s mind, he added a fishbowl. The world was watching him, but he was too enclosed, and too busy, to see much of the world. “The only portal, other than our phones, was the one TV.”
On Friday, Nov. 6 at 1:20 a.m., the board announced 5,816 new ballots. Seven hours later, they announced the 31,791 that put Biden in the lead. Reporters arrived in the isim hoc press gallery in the center’s lobby.
At the urging of the mayor, the city commissioners had taken on a press relations consultant. The consultant, Kevin Feeley, planned to hold a series of orderly and dull news conferences in which the commissioners would announce the progress of the canvass. But so pervasive was the anxiety around “voter suppression,” a term that had come to encompass not just legitimate complaints but also rumors and the hiccups of any election — uncooperative machines, campaign signs too close to polling places — that Feeley instead found himself trying to answer reports, some legitimate, most not, that journalists had seen on social media.
“I was just playing defense,” Feeley told me. “We were all just reacting to what was coming. We didn’t have the time to trace the sources of where all the rumors were coming from.” He described a particularly absurd exchange with a Fox News reporter who asked Feeley to respond to the reports from Trump supporters that Republican observers were being prevented from entering the canvassing room. “I was in the counting room when I got the call,” Feeley said. “I was literally looking at the observers. I said to him: ‘I don’t know what to tell you. I’m looking at them. There are two dozen people in the room, and they’re both Republican and Democrat.’”
At 12:30 p.m., Mayor Jim Kenney arrived at the press gallery, along with a number of other city officials. He thanked city employees who helped “by staffing this ballot-counting operation for all the world to see” and praised Philadelphians for managing to “stay calm and stay above the fray.” He added, “This is not about a victory for a single candidate or a single political party.”
Then a reporter asked about the president’s claims about election fraud in Pennsylvania. Above his surgical mask, you could see Kenney’s brow taban at the mention of Trump, who had been putting down Philadelphia for years: maligning its elections, its officials, even the Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Evvel in office, Trump criticized the city for its murder rate — in a speech in a Philadelphia hotel. Earlier this year, Trump chose a Philadelphia political operative named Mike Roman to head his national Election Day operations and the supposed 50,000-person “army” of poll watchers that would combat election fraud. This seemed like an inside joke aimed at local politicos: Roman was mostly unknown outside his home city, and mostly known in it for promoting a 2008 görüntü of members of the New Black Panther Party, who appeared to be intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place. Roman had parlayed that into an ambiguous job in the White House Counsel’s Office. When ballot drop boxes were installed in Philadelphia in early October and people began videoing them and posting the footage online, it resembled something out of Roman’s playbook.
Trump’s yearslong bewail of Philadelphia reached its aria in the presidential debate on the evening of Sept. 29. Referring to James Fitzpatrick’s expulsion from City Hall that day, he said: “Today there was a big sorun. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very birçok thing. They were thrown out, they weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.”
The Office of Emergency Management helps organize and protects elections in Philadelphia, preparing for everything from power outages to bomb scares. But for this election, it also had to prepare for a disinformation campaign from the White House. For the tabletop exercises it ran before the election, the office designed mock-ups of inflammatory social-media posts from the president and gamed out its responses. Seth Bluestein, who participated in the exercises, told me, “It was uncanny how accurate they were.”
Any or all of this may have been on Mayor Kenney’s mind when the reporter asked him about Trump. Kenney removed his mask with a dramatic swipe of the hand and said: “I think what the president needs to do is, frankly, put his big-boy pants on. He needs to acknowledge the fact that he lost, and he needs to congratulate the winner.”
Schmidt winced when he heard this. Biden was by this point up in Pennsylvania by only around 10,000 votes. He hadn’t yet won the state, much less the White House. Commissioners Deeley and Sabir were standing behind Kenney in the press gallery. Schmidt, who until then had been a regular at the news conferences, was not. Suspecting someone would say something tendentious, he declined to attend. “People trust me to not have partisan political views,” Schmidt told me. “I have very little value added in this job. My value added is my independence from all this muck.” The board had worked all morning to bring the reality of the race to light. Now, Schmidt said, “the danger was that something like that plays into the hands of the president.”
As it happened, that danger was materializing on the opposite side of the convention center as Kenney spoke, in the person of Corey Lewandowski, the onetime manager of Trump’s 2016 campaign and an intermittent moon in the president’s middle orbit. Rumors had been going around for days that Trump was headed to Philadelphia — the mayor had even been alerted that the president might appear on Election Day. Trump never did come, but his surrogates had been circulating all week, among them Lewandowski. News of Lewandowski’s presence was met by Philadelphians I met around the convention center with a certain smirking pride. Theirs is a rough and ready town, and Trump had dispatched to it a man he’d fired, a man who had come to fame roughing up a female reporter at a news conference.
At noon on Friday, Lewandowski walked into the vestibule in front of Exhibit Hall F. He was accompanied by an entourage that included two men who appeared to be acting as personal bodyguards. The more conspicuous of them was a tower of muscle with a blond flattop and shades. Seth Bluestein happened to be at the check-in desk, which was staffed by personnel from the Office of Emergency Management, when Lewandowski approached and learned that his name was not in their system. Lewandowski brandished a printout of an email he’d sent to Bluestein. When he read Bluestein’s name from the printout, Bluestein stood up and introduced himself. Lewandowski demanded to know why he hadn’t been credentialed. Bluestein explained that according to Pennsylvania law, three sets of people were permitted to observe ballot canvassing: residents of the county appointed by the parties, lawyers licensed to practice in Pennsylvania and candidates on the ballot. Lewandowski was none of these.
Before Lewandowski could protest further, Bluestein asked the officers to enter his information and print an access sticker for him. “The goal was to prevent confrontation and prevent unnecessary allegations of our blocking someone from high up in the campaign from coming in,” Bluestein told me later. “I made a decision it was best for the city, for the residents of the city, to allow him to come in and observe.” Lewandowski remained for about 45 minutes, left and didn’t return.
Kenney’s comments and the Lewandowski episode were not especially significant on their own, but they were contributing to larger forces that were, Schmidt feared. He got on the phone with the Pennsylvania secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw elections. They agreed that the atmosphere felt dangerous. Civil unrest seemed imminent. The Philadelphia Police Department had just released body-cam görüntü of the shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man who was killed by police officers two weeks earlier. It was after protests erupted that the governor ordered in the National Guard, which was still on the streets. And more news about the armed men in the Hummer from Virginia had come out: One of them was a founder of a group called Vets for Trump. They had sent a text message saying, “Going to Pa. Have a truckload of fake ballots. We are going to raid.” On Fox News, Newt Gingrich suggested that Attorney General William Barr send federal agents to Philadelphia. As the mood outside grew more ciltse, a detachment of auxiliary police officers set up shop on the center’s third floor. “They were ready to go,” Schmidt said.
News organizations were under increasing pressure as long as the election remained uncertain; the director of Fox News’s election desk, who had called Arizona early for Biden, was being attacked by the Trump campaign. To the media, Schmidt continued to counsel patience. That morning’s release had brought them to 337,609 ballots. They had just 36,764 more to go.
In the late afternoon, he took a quick break to go outside the loading dock to meet his wife and son. Schmidt wished him a happy birthday, hugged him and went back to work.
At 6:48 p.m., the board announced another 2,324 tallied ballots, and Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania increased to nearly 30,000 votes. Schmidt stayed in the canvassing room past midnight and then went to his hotel room, where he slept, for the first time in days, “like a pharaoh in a tomb.” For five hours. He was awoken early Saturday morning by messages from reporters. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was now leading the president’s assault on the validity of the election. Schmidt learned that Giuliani planned to hold a news conference in Philadelphia at 11:30 a.m., where he would call for hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots in the state to be thrown out.
“You’re always racing against the certification deadline, but now you’re also racing against a disinformation campaign that could potentially disenfranchise voters,” Schmidt said. He didn’t know what the results of Giuliani’s attempts would be, but “I knew something wicked this way comes. It’s not about the campaign or about who you want to win. This is never about who wins and who doesn’t. But if a campaign is trying to disenfranchise the voters of Philadelphia, you can’t not respond to it.” He added, “They were tipping their hand — which turned out to be very helpful.”
Schmidt had also learned from reporters that their news organizations were very close to calling the race. Another release from Philadelphia would prove decisive. Schmidt rushed to the canvassing room and conferred with Bluestein. They made their own decision: They would beat Giuliani to the punch. They gathered everyone on hand into the canvassing room and got to work.
The first 280,000 or so ballots had been comparatively easy. The voters’ handwriting had been legible, they had put their signatures in the right places, they had been careful to enclose their ballots in the secrecy envelope and they had returned them to the Board of Elections early enough that their names and signatures had already been checked against the state voter database and the poll books, the logs at polling places that keep track of who votes in person. By Saturday morning, the operation was down to the ballots that had arrived later as well as the more difficult ballots — the “problem children,” as the board called them, which didn’t meet one of those criteria or were flagged by the machines for another reason. They had to be reviewed carefully and discussed.
At 10:30 a.m., as Schmidt was inspecting a ballot, his phone rang. It was Senator Pat Toomey, the Republican from Pennsylvania. Schmidt had known Toomey since he got involved in politics in the state. After Toomey was elected in 2010, he lent Schmidt support in his race for the Board of Elections, when Schmidt took on the city’s Republican establishment.
Toomey had been contacted that morning by a representative of the Trump campaign in Philadelphia, who told him that Republican observers in the canvassing room were being prevented from getting close enough to the canvassing process, in contravention of a court order. This was untrue. There was an order, later reversed, that was a result of one of four cases Trump campaign lawyers had filed beginning on Election Day, in what appeared to be an attempt to slow the progress of the canvassing. The only one that advanced beyond the lower courts pertained to the barriers. The matter had arrived, Thursday evening, on the desk of a federal judge, who agreed the barriers should be moved. But by then it was moot: The board and its lawyers had already decided to move the barriers so that the canvassing could go on undisturbed. The member of the Trump campaign who contacted Toomey either did not know this or did not tell Toomey.
Toomey began asking Schmidt detailed questions about the barriers and observers. Schmidt knew Toomey was, privately, not a great fan of Trump’s. The senator, who had recently announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, had steered clear of the president’s campaign, and he had not attended any of Trump’s rallies in Pennsylvania. Most Senate Republicans had been silent in the face of Trump’s claims about election fraud or had echoed them. Toomey had not. He had appeared on a series of news programs on Friday to say that he had not seen any evidence of election fraud. Still, Toomey told Schmidt, he thought the campaign might be raising fair questions about the observers.
Schmidt explained the canvassing process. He assured him that accredited observers from both parties were allowed full access. Toomey thanked him, and they hung up.
After a few minutes, Schmidt called him back.
“Senator, you supported me in my election,” Schmidt recalls saying to him. “Do you trust me?”
“I do,” Toomey said.
“Are you questioning my integrity?” Schmidt asked.
“I would never question your integrity,” Toomey said.
Even so, Schmidt got the sense Toomey might be called upon to comment on Giuliani’s news conference, which was about to start, before the board had a chance to make its decisive release. So he tried to keep the senator on the phone. “I was doing a little bit of a rope-a-dope with him,” Schmidt, a boxing fan, said. In their last exchange, Schmidt offered Toomey the opportunity to “come here and take a look” himself. “If you’re going to have a strong opinion about this, why don’t you come to the convention center?” As he said this, Schmidt was watching his staff upload the last release onto the board’s website. Toomey did not come.
At 11:22 a.m., eight minutes before Giuliani was scheduled to speak, the board released 2,867 votes, bringing Biden’s lead to more than 30,000. Moments later, CNN called the race for Biden.
On Nov. 21, in an opinion that could fairly be called derisive, a federal judge in Pennsylvania dismissed the Trump campaign’s main lawsuit in the state, which sought to invalidate mail-in ballots and prevent the state from certifying the election. Hours later, Toomey urged the president to concede, saying, “Trump has exhausted all plausible kanunî options to challenge the result of the presidential race in Pennsylvania.” Referring to Trump’s similar efforts elsewhere, he chided the president for his “apparent attempt” to “thwart the will of Michigan voters and select an illegitimate slate of Electoral College electors.” He congratulated Biden and Kamala Harris, calling them “dedicated public servants.”
Three days later, Governor Wolf certified Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. By that point, 12 people working for the Board of Elections on the mail-in ballot operation had tested positive for the coronavirus, including one of Schmidt’s aides. (So had Corey Lewandowski.) “If that outbreak had happened a week or two earlier,” Schmidt said, “we probably would not have been able to certify.”
CNN had run a segment that featured Schmidt. Afterward, Trump tweeted, “A guy named Al Schmidt, a Philadelphia Commissioner and so-called Republican (RINO), is being used big time by the Fake News Media to explain how honest things were with respect to the Election in Philadelphia. He refuses to look at a mountain of corruption & dishonesty. We win!”
“A guy named Al Schmidt,” Schmidt told me after seeing the tweet. “I’ve got to either get that on a T-shirt or on my tombstone.”
He received a supportive text message from his sister, the Trump supporter. Her tone had changed. “Do they know you have a mean ass sister who would be happy to shove her size 8 up someone’s ass?” she wrote.
The next morning, Schmidt received two texts on his private cellphone from an unknown number. The first read: “You lied. You a traitor. Perhaps 75cuts and 20bullets will soon arrive.” The message named his wife, his son and his two daughters. “Rino stole election we steal lives.” It was signed “Q.” The next message, sent a minute later, read only: “You betrayed your country.”
The same morning, Schmidt’s wife received two emails in quick succession at her work address. “ALBERT RINO SCHMIDT WILL BE FATALLY SHOT,” one read. “COPS CAN’T HELP YOU. #Q,” and “HEADS ON SPIKES. TREASONOUS SCHMIDTS.” Included was a photo of the exterior of their house, apparently taken from a real estate website. The next message listed their children’s names over and over again. (More threats would come in the following weeks.)
Schmidt went home for the first time in nearly two weeks. He was alone. His wife had taken their children to a relative’s home. Dignitary Protection Section cruisers were stationed outside both houses, and more were on patrol around them.
When I last went to see Schmidt, at his City Hall office, there were still boxes of mail-in ballot applications covering the floor. Above his desk hung a portrait of Nelson Rockefeller, the former Republican governor of New York and vice president, and a silhouette drawing of John F. Kennedy. On a table were biographies of Rockefeller; “The Power Broker,” by Robert Caro; a book called “When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia”; and, in pride of place, a first edition of “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” which he bought at auction. The memoir of machine politics provides a famously jaundiced view of government. But Schmidt is fond of it because it is also an object lesson in reforming government without becoming discouraged.
“Reformers are generally from a professional background and have a job to return to,” he told me. “To defeat a reformer, Plunkitt says, you just have to stay in the ring. You just have to answer the bell every time.” So: “It doesn’t matter if you get knocked down or not. You have to stay at it and stay at it and stay at it.”
It’s too easy for the entrenched politicians to beat the reformers, Schmidt believed, and “I want to know how not to be beaten,” he said.
Schmidt had been contacted by Christopher Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, whom the president had fired, and whom a Trump-supporting lawyer and former U.S. attorney, Joseph diGenova, would later say should be tortured and shot. Krebs texted Schmidt to offer his encouragement and thanks. “You’re a hero that doesn’t deserve the BS you’re getting,” he wrote. The following week, the Supreme Court would reject a petition by a Republican state representative in Pennsylvania to throw out a majority of the state’s mail-in ballots, all but ending Trump and his allies’ last-ditch attempts to overturn the outcome in the state and in the country.
But insistence that the election had been stolen was more widespread among Republicans, including many national officials, than ever. When he talked about this, Schmidt took a characteristically forgiving tone. “They have a job to do, and that’s to support their candidate,” he said. “I understand that they would take the approach to neither condemn nor condone something like that.” But, he went on, “I’ve got the president tweeting at me. I can’t not feel estranged. My state party and my city party are silent while people are threatening the lives of my children. I can’t not feel estranged. But it doesn’t make me feel more something else. It doesn’t make me feel more like a Democrat. It makes me feel more like I’m not” — he paused — “wanted.”
He had written his dissertation on Nazi propaganda in Eastern Europe. While researching it, he lived in the Czech Republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I asked if the Third Reich had come to mind at all during the election or during the previous four years. It was an unsubtle inquiry, and he didn’t take the bait. But he took the point.
“I think there are several examples where democracies have undone themselves, where people are elected democratically then govern in a way that is not necessarily conducive to the continuation of democracy,” he said. “Democracies have embedded within themselves what it takes to undo themselves. America will obviously never be defeated by an external force that would end the republic. It’s only possible to end it from within.”
Source: The New York Times