The Scramble to Stop an Insider Election Threat

Posted by on November 14, 2021 7:00 am
Categories: Everything Else

The people who fear the most for the future of American democracy weren’t watching the election returns in Virginia and New Jersey earlier this month for clues about next year’s midterms. These voting-rights advocates didn’t pay much attention to who won mayoral or school-board races. Instead, they’ve spent the past two weeks trying to discern how many Donald Trump loyalists captured control of elections in a pivotal 2024 swing state: Pennsylvania.

Voters across the Keystone State decided who will run their polling places in the next two elections, but you could forgive them if they didn’t realize it. Buried near the bottom of their ballots on November 2 were a pair of posts: judge of elections and inspector of elections, bureaucratic titles that most people have never heard of. In many counties, the contests didn’t even make the first page of local races, falling far beneath those for supreme-court justice, county executive, and the school board—even tax collector and constable merited higher placement.

Yet the people who hold these election positions will play an important—if often overlooked—role in determining whether elections in Pennsylvania go off smoothly. Grassroots Republican supporters of Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat targeted these posts throughout the state, and many of them won their race last week. “There hasn’t been a sophisticated, concerted effort to sabotage elections like the one we’re facing now,” Scott Seeborg, the Pennsylvania state director for the nonpartisan group All Voting Is Local, told me.

For the next four years, judges and inspectors of elections will supervise polling places and ensure that votes are properly tabulated. Individually, they preside over a single precinct covering, at most, a few thousand ballots. But in the aggregate, the decisions made at such a hyperlocal level could tip close statewide or congressional elections, says Victoria Bassetti, a senior adviser to the nonpartisan States United Democracy Center. “It could add up, precinct after precinct after precinct,” Bassetti told me. Biased judges or inspectors might, directly or indirectly, skew a vote or two per precinct. “If people who are biased are elected to serve in these local positions anywhere in the country,” she said, “it ultimately could have a huge impact on how our democracy functions.”

Upcoming elections in Pennsylvania will—as much if not more than those in any other state—determine which party controls Congress and who wins the presidency. If recent trends continue, these contests will be close. Trump won the state by less than one percentage point in 2016 and lost it last year by a similar margin. The race for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat next year is already shaping up to be one of the hardest-fought in the nation.

[Read: The election that could break America]

While most state governments simply appoint people to run their polls, Pennsylvania voters elect fellow citizens to these positions. Or at least they’re supposed to. In hundreds of districts this fall, not a single name appeared on the ballot for judge or inspector of elections, prompting an under-the-radar scramble to encourage citizens to snap up the posts through write-in campaigns. “WE NEED PATRIOTS IN THESE POSITIONS!” read one entreaty circulated by the pro-Trump group Audit the Vote PA in mid-October. Fearing that election deniers could pose an insider threat in 2024, groups such as the League of Women Voters and All Voting Is Local sent out their own emails soliciting volunteers. “This is URGENT,” one of the emails read. “People (YOU!) need to run for Judge of Elections (work the polls) in a write-in campaign on November 2nd!” Some candidates won the posts with dozens or hundreds of votes from their neighbors; others simply claimed them by writing in their own name in precincts where no one else did.

In many cases, the write-in candidacies are necessary to fill a gap left by veteran poll workers who no longer want to volunteer for election duty in such a volatile, even dangerous political environment. Across the country, election officials have been subject to threats and harassment since the 2020 campaign, typically from fervent Trump supporters who believe the former president’s lie that the election was stolen. “Elections have become scary,” Seeborg said. “These violent intentions that are being communicated to election officials are having a chilling effect on who wants to be involved in elections, who wants to direct elections at the county level, and who even wants to volunteer.”

Although many Trump supporters mounted write-in bids in deep-red areas of Pennsylvania, voting-rights advocates were particularly concerned about the possibility that proponents of the Big Lie would secure the right to oversee precincts in Democratic bastions populated by people of color. Partisan election judges could set up polling places in ways that ensure long lines, Seeborg said. They could choose to enforce voter-ID laws in a discriminatory way, he added, thereby preventing or dissuading eligible voters from casting a ballot, or forcing them to cast a provisional ballot that could later be challenged. They could also seed doubt about the results by making false or exaggerated claims about irregularities or malfeasance—anecdotes that state legislators might then seize on to dispute or overturn the outcome.

Voting-rights advocates were also worried that in the places where no one ran for the precinct-level posts, county-level officials would later appoint 2020 conspiracy theorists to fill those positions. A 2013 study of voting in the 2008 presidential election found that turnout was lower in municipalities where the self-reported partisanship of an appointed poll worker differed from that of the majority of the electorate, but “only in cases where the official is a Republican.”

The recruitment drives in Pennsylvania had an impact: Across the state, the number of winning write-in candidates for judge and inspector of elections surged compared with previous years. But more than a week after the polls closed, Seeborg doesn’t know exactly how many election deniers succeeded in their bid. In part because of the higher-than-expected off-year turnout, counties have yet to certify write-in winners of posts such as judge and inspector of elections. He suspects, however, that proponents of the Big Lie won more of those write-in campaigns than people who responded to appeals from voting-rights groups.

The murky outlook points to another challenge that voting-rights advocates faced as they tried, with apparently limited success, to head off a Trump-inspired takeover of election administration in Pennsylvania. American politics is a billion-dollar industry, and campaigns for powerful posts at or near the top of the ballot are annually flooded with money used for ads warning people about the shady pasts of candidates left and right. But the system remains porous and decentralized, allowing people to slip into jobs—sometimes even important ones—with hardly any public scrutiny. Just look at Congress, where a right-wing conspiracy theorist, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, managed to win a wide-open GOP House primary that drew relatively little attention and then coasted to a general-election victory in a deep-red Georgia district. Or more recently, consider New Jersey, where an unknown truck driver spent just $2,200 to defeat the most powerful Democrat in the state legislature.

In Pennsylvania, voting-rights advocates found it impossible to keep up with races in thousands of precincts across the state. Not even the state Democratic Party, which focused its resources on higher-profile judicial and county-executive campaigns this year, was paying much attention. “I honestly don’t know,” Brendan Welch, a spokesperson for the party, told me when I asked him about the importance of judge- and inspector-of-elections positions a couple of weeks before the election.

From her apartment in Brooklyn in the weeks before the election, Bassetti searched the records in two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties—York and Lancaster, Republican strongholds south of Harrisburg—and found more than a dozen declared candidates for judge or inspector of elections who had shared social-media posts promoting 2020 conspiracy theories. But she and Seeborg knew there was no way they could uncover even close to all of the election deniers who might be seeking those posts across the state, including hundreds who would mount write-in campaigns and not appear on preprinted ballots. They would have to wait until after the election to find out who had run for and won elected office, and by then, of course, it would be too late to do anything about it.

Just as no one knows yet exactly whom the voters of Pennsylvania have chosen to run their elections for the next four years, no one knows what, if any, difference it will make—whether the warnings of voting-rights advocates will prove disastrously prescient or largely unfounded. A year ago, the postelection period matched some of the worst nightmares envisioned before the polls closed: Trump’s refusal to concede and his ridiculous allegations of fraud led to a deadly assault on the Capitol and a disruption of the election’s final certification, ending America’s run of peaceful transfers of power.

The election itself, however, went quite well. Fears of deliberate sabotage by Trump allies at the Postal Service or large-scale voter-intimidation efforts by Trump supporters never materialized, and the nation saw record turnout in the middle of a pandemic. This year’s elections similarly went off without much of a reported hitch, and undoubtedly, the thousands of people manning the polls included some die-hard supporters of the former president, and even election conspiracy theorists.

[Read: The election’s biggest threat is no longer the Postal Service]

One of the candidates Bassetti flagged in Lancaster County is a pastor and substitute teacher named Stephen Lindemuth, who was running both for the school board in Elizabethtown and for judge of elections for his local precinct. Lindemuth and his wife, Danielle, who also ran for the school board, had helped organize four busloads of people traveling down to Washington, D.C., for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6. (The Lindemuths did not try to enter the Capitol, Stephen told me. “It was completely innocent,” he said. “We were just going to voice our opinions and participate in that process.”) Both Lindemuths decided to run for the school board after objecting to the curriculum in their daughter’s ninth-grade English class. Of particular concern, Stephen said, was material assigned that supported the Black Lives Matter movement but was not balanced by “a perspective from the police,” along with a poster depicting the opening words of Toni Morrison’s book Paradise: “They shoot the white girl first.”

When Stephen Lindemuth secured a spot on the ballot for judge of elections, a Republican in his precinct became so concerned that he implored the leader of the local Democratic committee, Kristy Moore, to put up a candidate to run against Lindemuth, Moore told me. “We can’t have someone like that overseeing the voting procedures in our precinct,” Moore recalled being told.

Elizabethtown is a heavily Republican area, and Lindemuth won both of his campaigns. (Danielle won hers as well.) On the phone, he comes across as mild-mannered. He told me that he had concerns about voting by mail and “ballot harvesting,” and he repeated a falsehood that ballot counting on Election Night 2020 was halted in Pennsylvania and other states before a deluge of mail-in ballots mysteriously swung the election to Joe Biden. Yet if Lindemuth poses a grave threat to the democratic process in Lancaster County, he hid it well. He said he volunteered to serve as an election inspector last year because there was a shortage of workers and he wanted to help ensure that polls stayed open. Turnout was strong, and the only hiccup occurred when a voter told election officials that he had COVID-19. They cleared out the entire polling place so he could vote alone and then let people back in when he was done. “That was the oddest thing that occurred,” Lindemuth said.

I asked him about the people who were worried about him, who tried to prevent him from serving as an election judge. He said that they don’t have much to fear about him working the polls over the next few years. “There’s really not much to be concerned with, because there’s a set of rules that have to be followed,” Lindemuth said. “And if you don’t follow the rules and cross your t’s and dot your i’s, you can get in big trouble.” He suggested that he wouldn’t be able to swing a single vote—much less subvert an election—even if he wanted to. Nor would the other election supervisors whose victories across Pennsylvania last week have sparked so much concern. Lindemuth might dispute the legitimacy of last year’s election, and he holds views on education that voting-rights advocates probably find offensive. But when it comes to running a polling place, he doesn’t seem to see the job much differently than they do. “It really has little to do with election results,” Lindemuth said. “It’s more about filling in the gaps for the community.”

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