Workers get started tallying mail ballots inside the Pa. Convention Center on Election Day 2020

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Every day during election week, Branden Bauer oversaw a machine extracting hundreds of ballots from two sets of envelopes, bored out of his mind.

As chaos swirled outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the middle of Philadelphia’s downtown — from “count the vote” dance parties to press conferences with Trump surrogates to the alarming arrest of two armed QAnon followers — things were far more orderly inside the ballot counting operation.

“It’s very boring, mind-numbing work,” Bauer said. “But the machines were fun.”

The 26-year-old musician was one of more than 400 people who staffed the high-profile operation, a mix of hired temporary workers, city employees and elections officials who were tasked with making sure every vote got counted — and fast.

Interviews with ballot counters like Bauer, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, paint a strikingly different portrait of a process that the Trump campaign has repeatedly cast as flawed and corrupt without providing any concrete evidence.

To temp workers with minimal training, the process appeared methodical, precise and largely tamper-proof. Working at a station where he had physical contact with the ballots, Bauer’s every move on the extraction device was under supervision from partisan poll watchers from both sides.

But the work came at a gruelling pace. Supervisors from the Philadelphia Office of City Commissioners worked days on end, overseeing a rotating three-shift cast of workers. The 24-hour, assembly line-like production continued from Election Day through the weekend, when the Associated Press called the presidency for Joe Biden.

That relentless churn meant at times, some workers felt neglected or mismanaged. Too many people on the floor and no one telling them what to do. At one point, a lack of water to hydrate.

“I could go on all day about how mismanaged the operation was — but there was no tampering,” said one city employee who was on site every day, but not authorized to speak to the press about the situation. “It was a people problem, not a fraud problem.”

Chief Deputy City Commissioner Seth Bluestein said he’s still working 12- to 16-hour days overseeing the ballot count operation, like he has since Election Day, even as it winds down to nitty-gritty processing of the last 20,000 raw ballots.

Bluestein acknowledged there were some growing pains during the frenetic first days of the count. But he said those minor hiccups did not ultimately not impact the success of the operation, even as he and other election officials continue to face death threats.

Said the Republican deputy: “It’s been tough…It is a very dangerous situation when the president or his senior advisers continue to fan the flames of misinformation.”

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A frenetic operation, powered by everyday  Philadelphians

On Nov. 3 at 7 a.m., when county election officials were legally allowed to begin processing ballots under Pennsylvania law, the convention center snapped into frenzied gear.

The City Commissioners hired hundreds of workers from a local temp agency called PeopleShare. Paid $18 an hour, the group came from diverging backgrounds, including political science students interested in seeing the sausage of democracy get made and people who lost income because of the pandemic. Each passed background checks through the agency and agreed to strict protocols about not engaging in partisan discussions during the count.

On the counting floor, no one uttered a peep about politics.

“This year has been crazy, and it just felt like a lot of normal working-class people who just needed a job,” Bauer said.

“Every person working here either wants to make money or is truly passionate about democracy, or both,” said another worker, who asked their name be withheld to protect their full-time employment.

The count started slowly that Tuesday morning — much to the world’s frustration, as Philly mail ballot results returned at a trickle.

The newness of this operation brought a learning curve. On the eve of Election Day, City Commissioner Al Schmidt urged calm and assured reporters that the first day would be the slowest part, to get the workflow right. With over 350k mail ballots to count, the assembly line could process about 10k to 12k an hour — when things were running smoothly.

Inside the capacious, 125,000-foot warehouse, the ballot count team was in for a long few days.

Trump supporters rallied outside the ballot-counting site, making false fraud accusations Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

No water, mixed messages, an ‘anarchist bookstore’

The morning after Election Day, a city employee working the operation grew frustrated with a perceived lack of direction and support from supervisors. For several hours during that shift, staff didn’t have any water bottles, the worker said, and no access to the water fountains in the convention center due to pandemic restrictions.

“They’re running this shit like an anarchist bookstore,” the person told Billy Penn.

Bluestein, the Republican deputy commissioner, said the water shortage was a one-time problem.

Three workers separately described long stretches of mismanagement.

On the 24-hour livestream of the operation, which attracted tens of thousands of YouTube views, workers could at times be seen standing around with nothing to do, as the pace lagged in other parts of the process. Frustration and boredom fused. No cell phones were allowed on the counting floor, either — a policy that reportedly ended up getting at least one Trump poll watcher kicked out.

The annoyance also came from a collective sense of urgency. Even the temp workers knew how important it was to keep the count moving quickly, and their questions during these sluggish periods often went unanswered, they said.

“It was a general vibe of ‘let’s get this done,’” Bauer said. “But the staff could have been informed better on how to make it a quicker process.”

Bluestein said a lot of the apparent idle time was necessary. Sometimes it was a result of shift changes. Sometimes it was to sanitize machinery, per COVID-19 protocols.

“There are a lot of starts and stops when you’re ramping up a machine to process hundreds of thousands of ballots,” he said. “It’s not unfair to say there was some downtime, and then it ramped up with quick activity.”

As the week progressed, however, workers say the conditions improved — and so did the flow of the count. Batches of mail ballots poured in more steadily each day, inching Pennsylvania’s nail-biter election toward a final call.

Workers were thrilled when the pace was good.

“We’re really pumping now,” a counter said one afternoon. “They allowed two rows of extractors to run.”

Even the shift meals improved. The Sixers’ Ben Simmons sent trays of Carmen’s cheesesteaks for the counting crew, the Commissioners’ Office confirmed. As if in competition, Bradley Cooper sent over Angelo’s. Rivers Casino offered breakfast sandwiches one morning.

Trump campaign surrogate Corey Lewandowski holds up court order allowing poll watchers to observe the ballot count operation from six feet away Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Battle of the poll watchers

As the count proceeded, workers doing the labor inside shook their head at some of the allegations coming in about corruption and fraud within the Pa. Convention Center.

From Election Day onward, the Trump campaign fired off a near-constant barrage of lawsuits in Philadelphia in an attempt to stop mail ballots from being tallied. The most frequent claims involved Republican poll watchers and their observation ability. An early suit claimed they had no access at all, which lawyers later walked back, describing the alleged problem instead as lack of “meaningful access.” (Since then, the Trump campaign has further slimmed down its allegations in federal court.)

At every moment in the days since the election, Trump surrogates have had legal right to be present to observe the process. That didn’t stop a poll watcher from commenting, “What I saw was disturbing and the process seemed specifically so that we could not observe and we could not challenge,” in a video shared by the president on YouTube.

State election officials and judges have maintained that the law allows poll watchers to observe the process — as happened in Philly — not to audit specific ballots or issue “challenges” on the spot.

After one legal injunction that paused the count on Thursday, city commissioners restructured the viewing area to allow poll watchers within six feet. Workers and other observers in the room said partisan poll watchers from both major parties were present at all times throughout the week, and largely civil.

More often than not, the process grew so monotonous that people stopped paying attention, according to Lauren Vidas, a Democratic election attorney who was on there observing on behalf of a nonpartisan election rights group, Protect Our Vote Philly.

“By the time I left on Thursday night, half of the Republican poll watchers weren’t even watching any more,” Vidas said. “They were just sitting there shooting the shit.”

As in any workplace, the signs of boredom could not be totally hidden.

One afternoon, a worker texted this reporter a picture of the trash can inside the restroom near the observation area. Among discarded paper towels lay an empty airplane-sized bottle of peach-flavored New Amsterdam vodka.

Philadelphia’s ballot counting process winded down by Friday afternoon. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ballot counters: Fraud was nearly impossible

Conspiracy theories, misinformation and literal fake news poured out of nearly every state last week. Fake videos circulated of ballot counters tampering with votes, allegedly tossing out Trump votes.

Could workers with direct access to the ballots tamper with them, given the opportunity?

Highly unlikely, they say.

The assembly line worked like this: Workers used a machine to extract ballots from a secrecy envelope. Another crew then manually unfolded the ballots and checked for discrepancies that could prevent the tabulation computer from scanning correctly. (Common flaws included marking circles for two candidates in the same race, for example.) Once cleared, they were sent to a machine to be counted. Those that had definiciences were set aside for manual assessment by the Office of City Commissioners, which has a bipartisan board.

At every stage, people involved said the process had safeguards to ensure no ballots went missing. In cases where ballots had to be set aside, city officials would personally inspect them.

One worker had the tedious job of inspecting every single “secrecy envelope” once the ballot had been extracted, just to make sure none were missed before the envelopes got sent to the paper shredder. Even the garbage was inspected before it was thrown away.

“We had to take the trash cans and send them to some other place for examination,” said Bauer, the temp worker.

One person whose duty was checking ballots for material deficiencies said that, even if there was someone with nefarious intentions, it would have been impossible to tamper with a vote under that amount of scrutiny. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, said he was under the gaze of poll watchers the entire time.

Could someone in his role have tampered with votes if they really tried, or were extremely devious? How many?

“If they were sweating bullets and wanted to risk their life, maybe one [ballot],” said the worker.

City Commissioner Lisa Deeley announces the latest expectation of when all votes in Philadelphia will be counted. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Lessons learned, and the last ballots

Saturday morning around 11 a.m., the Associated Press declared Biden the winner. As a party erupted in the streets from Center City to West Philadelphia, the mood lifted inside the convention center.

Many of the workers who had been staffing the operation Tuesday through Friday were not called back. Election officials continued to count the remaining ballots over the last week, some of which are subject to legal review and could be tossed.

Now, nearly two weeks after the count began, the city has counted 360,000 mail ballots without any hard evidence of fraud.

For Deputy City Commissioner Bluestein, the chaos of the first few days was a result of policy. The Pa. Legislature’s failure to pass a law allowing mail ballot counting to begin before Election Day — as many other states do — created most of the problems, he said, and fueled much of the misinformation about the process in Philadelphia.

To the election official, the chaos of Nov. 3 “was avoidable and known in advance.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...