Pennsylvania has had a tumultuous couple of weeks hammering out the complicated logistics for its general election. And in Tuesday’s presidential debate, that tumult — which ranges from investigations of discarded ballots, to early voting controversies to alarm over “secrecy’ envelopes — was given top billing.
President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, of Fox News, didn’t get to voting logistics until close to the end of the 90-minute event.
The issue was charged — even for a debate that had already been unrelentingly contentious.
Trump criticized mail-in balloting, specifically in states that are accepting ballots past Election Day due to unusually high volume and mail delays. He, without evidence, said he thinks the election “is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen” — and called out Philadelphia specifically.
“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he said.
He brought up two specific issues that he believed point to Pennsylvania Democrats perpetuating “a rigged election” — poll watchers being “kicked out” of Philadelphia early voting offices, and ballots being found “in a wastepaper basket.”
Both points are misleading.
Several satellite election offices opened in Philly on Tuesday, just before the presidential debate. According to reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer, at least one woman who identified herself as a poll watcher for the Trump campaign attempted to enter a West Philadelphia satellite office, but was rebuffed.
The city’s satellite offices do constitute a new form of early voting. But election officials argue that they’re not polls.
Voters can request, receive, fill out and submit mail ballots all at once, but they’re treated the same as any other mail ballot that is sent to or dropped off at the main county elections office.
Poll workers have no right to be at offices like these, the officials said.
In the case of trashed ballots, Trump was referring to an incident, reported last week, in which Luzerne County election officials found nine ballots — seven of which were open, and had been cast for Trump — in their trash.
They quickly alerted the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney overseeing the case released limited details about it. The ballots had apparently been thrown out by a contract worker, who was fired. No charges have been filed, and there is no sign of more widespread problems in Luzerne.
Trump said, in summary, that there are situations in which he won’t accept the election results as legitimate.
He’s urged his supporters to go into polls and “watch very carefully … if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
Biden tried to discredit Trump’s argument that ballots arriving after Election Day should be disqualified, saying the president is “just afraid of counting the votes,”
“He has no idea what he’s talking about,” Biden said of the possibility of fraud. “Here’s the deal. The fact is, I will accept [the outcome] and he will too. You know why? Because once the winner is declared after all the votes are counted, that will be the end of it.”
If those prospective voters watched the debate, it’s an open question whether they learned anything about Trump and Biden’s stances on the issues.
But Pennsylvania was, nevertheless, at the center of that topic as well.
Trump, in the middle of an argument that states should more quickly reverse their coronavirus-induced limits on gatherings, called out the commonwealth as being one of several states run by Democratic governors that “want to keep it shut down until after the election … because it’s a political thing.”
“Pennsylvania is like a prison,” he said.
The commonwealth has lifted most of its strictest COVID-19 restrictions, but several remain. Bars and restaurants still have limited occupancy, and indoor gatherings are limited to 25 people. Outdoor gatherings are capped at 250, though it appears thousands attended a Trump rally at the airport near Harrisburg.
Biden countered that he also wants states like Pennsylvania to reopen fully. But he thinks Trump isn’t doing it safely enough.
He argued the president’s job in this situation is to broker a deal with Congress to get personal protective equipment and financial support to businesses so they can open safely.
“He doesn’t have a plan,” he said. “If I were running it, I would know what the plan is.”
The second of the three planned presidential debates is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami. The vice presidential debate is on Oct. 7 in Utah.
Read more from our partners, WHYY.