LUZERNE COUNTY, Penn.—Shelby Watchilla leaned forward, her amber hair brushing against the plexiglass barrier, lowering her voice so that it was barely audible from behind her blue mask. “Listen, there’s nobody in the world who wants the truth out there more than I do,” she said.
A kind-eyed woman in her mid-40s, Watchilla glanced around nervously. She nodded toward the cameras overhead and the employees glancing in our direction. “The investigation is technically ongoing,” she said, her tone equal parts caution and desperation. “I don’t know why. But I’m not allowed to talk until it’s over.”
Three weeks earlier, Watchilla had been just another obscure civil servant. As the director of elections for Luzerne County, a federation of hill country hamlets in northeastern Pennsylvania, she was one of the thousands of local officials across America responsible for running elections. Watchilla, who had been on the job just under a year, circulated details on rules and regulations and deadlines; registered new voters; collected and counted ballots; and as a general matter did whatever necessary, in a year plagued by confusion and disinformation surrounding elections, to distinguish fact from fiction.
Until she was no longer allowed to.
The trouble began on September 16. Watchilla, who was predictably short on help during the home stretch of election season, had earlier that week brought on a handful of seasonal workers—“election temps,” as they’re called in clerks’ offices—to help with processing incoming mail. One of these temps, Watchilla discovered, had wrongly discarded nine absentee ballots into the trash.
Authorities have disclosed little information about the episode. But based on the few public details made available, as well as my interviews with local county and party officials, the contours of the incident are clear enough. Watchilla, a Republican, immediately launched an internal inquiry on September 16 and alerted her superiors, who contacted the Luzerne District Attorney’s office (who also happens to be a Republican), who in turn contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s unclear whether this last step was necessary; given the long tradition of local election oversight, calling in the feds over nine discarded ballots struck many here as curious. By day’s end, law enforcement had locked down the inconspicuous brick building in downtown Wilkes-Barre, searching every office, closet and garbage can on the premises for evidence.
They found the damage was limited to the nine ballots Watchilla had already discovered, and the explanation seemed obvious. These were not standard absentee ballots; in fact, the absentee ballots that most Pennsylvanians applied for had yet to be mailed out. Instead, these were special military absentee ballots, and whether it was due to their unfamiliar appearance, or because they were not returned in the appropriate envelopes, or some combination of these and other factors, they were mistakenly tossed out. According to numerous sources here, this was the salient (if still unofficial) conclusion of the investigators—it was a mistake. The temp was let go, but no charges have been filed. While cooperating with law enforcement, Watchilla and her employees got back to work. They thought it was behind them.
And then, on the afternoon of September 24, the Department of Justice detonated a bomb over Luzerne County.
Issuing a press release announcing “an inquiry” into Watchilla’s elections bureau, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania declared that it had discovered nine discarded military ballots—and that “all nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.” Watchilla and other county officials were stunned. Until that moment, none of them had known whom the ballots were cast for; not only was this information irrelevant to the investigation, but the disclosure was a violation of the privacy standards elections officials are sworn to uphold.
Nobody here knows exactly how a call about nine discarded ballots that were recovered by the office boss turned into a press release from the Department of Justice; the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to my request for comment. But the sudden escalation of events, and the extraordinary unmasking of voters’ ballot preferences, made for a media feeding frenzy. Local and national news swarmed over the story, the coverage blowing wildly out of proportion the events that occurred—which, in retrospect, seemed to be the point.
“I was a journalist here for many years. I saw a million press releases from the Middle District office, and there was never a single good detail you could pull out of them. Those statements were always so vague that it made you crazy,” said Kathy Bozinski, chair of the Luzerne County Democrats. “So, to see a press release with those very specific details, not to mention all the speculative language, it was a huge red flag. It was pretty obvious what was going on.”
Hours before the DOJ release, Trump raised the incident on Brian Kilmeade’s Fox News radio program, complaining of “eight ballots in an office yesterday … in a certain state and [they] had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can.” A short while later, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany teased reporters about an imminent blockbuster story coming out of Pennsylvania. Finally, minutes after the DOJ published its statement, Matt Wolking, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, tweeted, “BREAKING: FBI finds military mail-in ballots discarded in Pennsylvania. 100% of them were cast for President Trump.”
Wolking concluded the tweet: “Democrats are trying to steal the election.”
History will record that in the summer and fall of 2020, at the peak of the most unusual and bitterly contested election in modern times, the president and his team made a sport of plucking minor incidents from local news feeds and distorting them into data points of a grand conspiracy to deny him a second term. History will also record that their efforts have been wildly successful.
While visiting places like Luzerne County that were targeted by the president’s campaign and his administration—as well as dozens of other towns where I spoke with voters about their faith in America’s system of elections—I have been struck by a glaring disconnect. Voters who still believed enough in their own local voting system to cast a ballot had become convinced that the national system was irredeemably corrupt. Despite incredible advances in technology that have afforded voters more security and more transparency than ever before, a rising tide of distrust has swamped an institution that has kept our democracy afloat for a couple of centuries. At the same time, the most manifest reasons to be skeptical of American elections—absurdly long lines, a perpetual lack of funding, nonsensical laws and last-minute rule changes—were pushed to the periphery of the conversation.
That our dialogue around voting has become so wildly disproportional owes primarily to the whims of the president. Trump has spent much of this year railing against absentee balloting, alleging historic fraud, but he has been starved for actual proof of corruption. (He disbanded his own voting fraud commission after it spent $500,000 and uncovered no evidence of any scalable cheating.) The DOJ’s sudden interest in a little-known elections office in America’s most pivotal swing state gave the president a useful new tale of woe to peddle.
In a healthy, informed democracy, we might have a different reaction to the facts that emerged from Luzerne County. Instead of making partisan allegations, we might ask why the people entrusted to count our votes can’t be trusted to count them as they arrive; why an institution that is a bulwark of our democracy is starved for adequate resources. Instead, both Fox News and the Fox affiliate in Wilkes-Barre are getting big ratings showing us B-roll of a dumpster behind the local elections office, intimating that some Tammany Hall-style trickery is going down in a county that Trump carried by nearly 20 points.
Naturally, the people preoccupied with voter fraud are upset that it’s downplayed in the media, that we don’t take it seriously enough. Let’s be clear: Any cases of double voting or dead people casting ballots are newsworthy. But every data point we have suggests that voter fraud does not occur on any sort of scale that is altering election outcomes. At the same time, there is real evidence of other flaws in the system; 550,000 ballots were disqualified during the presidential primaries this year, according to an analysis by National Public Radio. This sort of sweeping disenfranchisement—most often the result of missing signatures or improperly sealed envelopes—should concern anyone who believes that every vote should count. But Trump’s agenda is not to fix our electoral problems; Trump’s agenda is to scare away enough voters to win or sow enough doubt in the minds of those who do vote to preemptively justify a loss.
It’s why he called the chairman of the Iowa GOP, on the night he lost the 2016 caucuses, and urged him to throw out the results. It’s why he felt the need, after winning the presidency but losing the popular vote, to concoct a fantasy about millions of illegal ballots being cast. It’s why, one week before Election Day 2020, he suggested that no ballots should be counted after November 3—and proposed nullification of tens of millions of legitimate votes. It’s why Wolking, a spokesman for Trump’s reelection campaign, felt comfortable weaponizing a temp’s screw-up at a random elections office, attracting hundreds of thousands of eyeballs and sparking countless conspiratorial fires across the internet before finally deleting it nearly a day later.
It’s also why on September 29, five days after the DOJ statement about the Luzerne County investigation, Trump used the first presidential debate to disparage the entire electoral system with a litany of vague claims of malfeasance around the country and suggesting he might not accept the outcome.
“They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud. They found them in creeks. They found some—just happened to have the name Trump—just the other day in a wastepaper basket. They’re being sent all over the place,” the president warned. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
When Joe Biden scoffed, insisting there was no substantiation of any of this, Trump shook his head.
“This is not going to end well,” the president warned.
Academics talk fondly of “mediating institutions,” the proverbial glue that holds a nation and its society together. But the plural noun is misleading. There is only one institution that truly possesses the authority to mediate our disputes, to settle our most important scores, to deliver a verdict that is irreversible. That institution is the ballot box. And it is under siege.
Skepticism of the electoral process is as old as the republic itself. From the mass disqualification of ballots in the 1792 New York governor’s race, to the imported voters who swung the Bleeding Kansas election of 1855, to the generations of Black voters whose franchise was stripped away in the Jim Crow south, to the hanging chads in Florida at the turn of the 21st century, America’s electoral history is strewn with episodes that have spoiled public confidence in the integrity of our elections.
Historically, efforts to sow doubts about the validity of the vote started on the ground level and worked up. Citizen groups have spent hundreds of years petitioning the government, with varying degrees of success, to acknowledge and remedy the shortcomings of the system. These movements have gradually, if incompletely, improved an institution that will never be perfect. Americans are rightfully outraged over purges to voting rolls, and justifiably concerned about the possibility of cheating. (They might be heartened to know, though, the number of convictions for voter fraud over the past four years has dropped 73 percent, from 53 cases nationwide in 2016 to 14 cases so far in 2020.) Because of these concerns—not in spite of them—the ballot box today is largely accessible and historically transparent and secure.
And yet, in the year 2020, there is a campaign to delegitimize the ballot box—and it is coming from the top. The chief executive of the United States, the head of state of the world’s most powerful democracy, insists that his country’s election results cannot be trusted. It is part of a pattern: Over the past five years, Trump has methodically loosened the lugnuts on America’s system of voting, using the credibility of the presidency to sow doubt that incidents like the one in Luzerne County are not mishaps but proof of a conspiracy. The precipitous decline in voters’ trust shows that the message is taking hold.
Just 59 percent of Americans say they are confident that votes this year will be accurately cast and counted, according to a recent Gallup poll. That’s an 11-point drop in overall confidence from the 2018 election. Driving this downward trajectory is a 34-point drop among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents over the past two years. Today, just 44 percent of GOP-aligned voters are confident in the legitimacy of the election, “a record low for either party,” Gallup reported.
My conversations with voters throughout this cycle convince me that we’re facing a crisis of confidence from every angle—people frustrated with outdated technology at polling precincts, people furious with naked attempts at voter suppression, people alarmed at confusing court rulings and mass ballot disqualifications. All of this angst is real and worthy of examination. But the most immediate source of anxiety—the subject of the most urgent and impassioned discussions I’ve had with voters, particularly over the past few months—is the question of whether results can be trusted at all.
“If Trump loses, the Supreme Court needs to call a new election. They should investigate all these ballots that have been thrown out and give him four more years on that basis alone. They’re trying to cheat him out of office,” said Frank Kibler, a 51-year-old Trump supporter I met outside the Luzerne County building.
He nodded up in the direction of the second-floor elections bureau. “Don’t tell me they didn’t throw them away on purpose. The ballots were for Trump, and they don’t want Trump getting reelected—it’s as simple as that,” said Kibler, who was on crutches after a motorcycle accident. “There’s obviously someone in that office who doesn’t like him, and they’re trying to stop him. It’s nothing new—same thing that happened with Russia, and the whole Mueller investigation, and then the impeachment thing. This is just the latest way to try and cheat him out of the job.”
A minute later, 37-year-old James Moore stopped and fixed his gaze on the backside of the building. “That’s the dumpster right there,” he said, pointing to the hulking bin of green metal. “That’s where they were throwing all the ballots. Everyone was talking about it.”
Over the course of three days spent in Luzerne County, I had any number of conversations that followed a similar rhythm. Supporters of the president were outraged. They were appalled. They were paranoid. They could not, in most cases, bring themselves to believe that what happened in their own backyard was not a sinister plot to overthrow the president.
The scary part? These sentiments were not limited to your everyday, low-information voter.
“I’m sorry, but it was no accident. It was on purpose. We all know that,” Lynn Bartz, the district chair of the local GOP, told me outside the Luzerne Republican Party headquarters. “It’s the way they’ve been playing this game, the way they’ve been trying to set up Trump since day one. Whether it was Russia, or the impeachment, or now Covid, it keeps on coming. And now they’re trying to beat him any way they can.”
I asked Bartz, who is 65 years old and outwardly warm and pleasant as could be, whether she believed there was any scenario under which Biden could win the presidency fair and square.
She shook her head. “No. I don’t think there’s any possibility that President Trump can lose fairly,” she said. “If he loses, it’s because he was cheated. I’m sorry. That’s just what I believe.”
Bartz was quick to clarify something: Up until now, she had trusted our system of elections.
“Obama won fair and square, but that election was held under the old rules,” she explained. “This new way of voting, all these mail ballots, I don’t trust it. You don’t know where they are coming from and who’s filling them out.”
This has been the breaking point in most of my conversations with voters: mail balloting. Because of rule changes in numerous states—some of which predated the pandemic, and others that were adopted because of it—an unprecedented number of absentee ballots have been requested in 2020. An estimated 80 million mail ballots have been requested this year, compared to 33 million cast in 2016. This onset of mass voting by mail has provided a perfect straw man for Trump, who intuitively knows that because the system is relatively new to much of the country, it is ripe for fearmongering and disinformation. The irony is that Trump himself has for years voted absentee by mail claiming residency in Florida.
Before I could bring that up, Bartz wanted to make another thing clear.
“Now, I voted absentee in the primary here,” she said. “The problem is, who else is doing it?”
Reynaldo “Rey” Valenzuela tried to calm himself, but to no avail. The man gets excited talking about elections. He gets especially excited talking about mail voting. And if you challenge the integrity of his system, one of the largest and most sophisticated in the country, well, Valenzuela is going to explain a few things.
“It didn’t used to be like this,” said Valenzuela, a heavyset man in his fifties, slapping his palm against a conference table. “We’re a red state, and mail voting was always a bipartisan issue.”
Valenzuela is elections director for Maricopa County, home to two-thirds of Arizona’s population. He came to the county recorder’s office 30 years ago as a college intern, assigned to sort mail and stack boxes in the warehouse. He never left. For the past three decades, Valenzuela, a nonpartisan public servant, has helped Maricopa County construct what is widely regarded as one of the premier vote-by-mail programs in the country.
When he started, Maricopa County “used a typewriter to print about 1,000 absentee ballots for each election,” Valenzuela laughed, “and we mailed them out one at a time.” Costly and inefficient as this was, the county was getting by. But the challenges of administering elections in Arizona’s sprawling and scarcely populated outer counties were daunting. As lawmakers weighed their options, a push for “no-excuse-absentee voting”—which allows anyone to request a mail ballot—was gaining momentum in other states. With a decisiveness that feels alien today, a large bipartisan majority of Arizona’s legislature voted in 1991 to adopt no-excuse-absentee voting. (In 1997, lawmakers swapped the term “early” for “absentee,” clearing up the misconception that absentee voting was only for old folks and Americans living abroad.)
There were growing pains. Maricopa County went from printing 1,000 absentee ballots in one election cycle to 10,000 the next. The typewriter couldn’t keep up. For the next few years, as the number of absentee requests in America’s fourth-most-populous county kept ballooning, officials tinkered with various technologies to scale up their operation. After a couple of elections, Maricopa had worked out the kinks and was running a massive vote-distribution machine. The only problem? “Everyone had to re-request a ballot, in every single election,” Valenzuela moans. “Every primary we would get a request, and then we’d get a request from the same person for the general election. It was nonsensical. We were getting 500,000 repeated requests, and those requests were costing us enormous resources, human capital, to handle it.”
In 2007, the Arizona legislature—again with broad bipartisan support—voted to create the Permanent Early Voting List. This made sense on every level. Hundreds of thousands of dollars that was spent on postage was now being saved. Citizens no longer needed to jump through the same hoop twice in every election cycle. And elections officials, rather than spending their days “acting like Lucille Ball on the assembly line,” as Valenzuela joked, could devote their time and resources to securing the system on the back end.
This is the great irony: Election integrity costs money. States that limit mail voting are spending most of their budgets on logistics and personnel and inefficient repeat expenditures, whereas states that embrace mail voting have freed up countless millions of dollars to invest in cutting-edge security programs that safeguard the ballot box. This explains why Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, gently rebuked Trump this summer after the president disparaged mail voting during a visit to the state. “In Arizona, we’re going to do it right,” Ducey told Trump. “It will be free and fair. It will be difficult if not impossible to cheat—and it will be easy to vote.”
Ducey’s confidence is a direct reflection of the system Valenzuela and his colleagues around the state have perfected. It’s the closest thing to foolproof you can find in the world of modern elections. Valenzuela said there’s only been one documented instance of sophisticated voter fraud in his 30 years—a couple who falsified ballots—and they were caught without breaking a sweat. (Maricopa County saw 11 convicted cases of double voting in the 2016 election.)
Here’s how it works. Every person who applies to vote is vetted—their records checked against the Motor Vehicle Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Social Security Administration and Office of Vital Records—before they are confirmed and registered to vote. At that point, if the voter wants to join the permanent list, as almost all applicants do, he or she is placed in a voter database that is continually syncing with the databases of those agencies and others. Any activity in any of those linked databases places an immediate hold on the voter file; if someone changes their address, for instance, or is convicted of a felony, their file is frozen. When a death is reported, the file is terminated.
The most commonly voiced concern with mail voting is that some ballots end up in the wrong location, either because the postal service made a mistake or because the intended recipient moved elsewhere. Valenzuela has a ready answer for every possible scenario. If someone moves, he said, “99.999 percent of the time they file a change of address with the post office, and that flags our system.” If someone doesn’t file that change of address, or if they do but the ballot winds up elsewhere by mistake, there’s nothing a stranger can do with it anyway.
“Signature verification is the heartbeat of the security process,” Valenzuela explained. He walked me over to his computer and demonstrated the forensic software technology they use to match signatures on the ballot return envelope with the voter’s signature on file. If it doesn’t match, he said it’s flagged with a “Q” (“Questionable”) and moves to a new phase of verification. Attempts are made to contact the voter—by mail, phone call, even a home visit—to confirm their identity and signature. If those repeated attempts are unsuccessful, the ballot is disqualified.
How often does this happen? In 2016, there were 1.2 million mail ballots cast in Maricopa County, and a total of 20,000 envelope signatures were flagged for further verification. Of the 20,000 that were flagged, 307 were disqualified due to failed attempts to confirm identity. This means 0.025 percent of mail ballots that year were disallowed, leaving little doubt the balance of them were legitimately cast and counted.
But that’s not good enough for everyone. Not in this political environment.
The same day I visited the Maricopa County recorder’s office, I attended a rally in nearby Peoria, Arizona, headlined by Vice President Mike Pence. The vice president does not typically engage the notion of mass voter fraud in his stump speech; he leaves that to the top of the ticket. Still, because the discussion with Valenzuela was fresh on my mind, I had planned to ask voters about their experience with Arizona’s mail-voting program.
But I didn’t have to. When asking the folks I met to identify their priorities and concerns in this election, several of them raised the issue of mail voting unsolicited. One such voter was Lynn Roberson, a retired law clerk who lives in north Phoenix. A staunch conservative and active supporter of the president, Roberson moved to Arizona from California during the Obama presidency because she couldn’t tolerate the liberalism of the Golden State. The one thing she did like: California’s mail-voting system. “It was easy to vote absentee, and I took advantage of that,” Roberson said.
She continued this practice—voting by mail, although she called it “absentee,” which is a distinction without any real difference—upon arriving in Arizona. It was quick and convenient, just like in California. Roberson didn’t think much of it. And then came 2020. The pandemic. The massive expansion of mail voting. The president’s allegations of widespread voter fraud committed through the post office. Now, Roberson is telling everyone she meets—the people at her church, the neighbors whose doors she knocks for the Trump campaign—to go to the polls in person.
“The problem is, they’re sending out ballots to everyone. And I don’t trust that. I don’t trust the postal service anymore—this stuff I heard on the radio this morning, I couldn’t believe it,” Roberson said. “It was Sean Hannity, he was on AM radio 550, talking about how they found all these ballots in the trash and in the river. It’s just horrible. We can’t even trust the postal service anymore.”
If Roberson is at one end of the cynic’s spectrum—a former believer in mail voting who now denounces it—then Daniella Martinez occupies the other pole.
I met Martinez that same week, on the first day of early in-person voting at a Phoenix precinct. A 29-year-old grocery store manager, Martinez was casting a ballot for the first time in her life. After she explained her animus for Trump—detailing his lies and fearmongering—I asked why she wasn’t taking advantage of Arizona’s mail-voting program. She cocked her head sideways.
“That would defeat the purpose,” she said. I asked her to elaborate.
“Most of my friends and family, they don’t vote because they don’t think their vote would get counted in the first place. It’s definitely not getting counted if you take it to the post office,” Martinez smirked. “I keep hearing Biden and these people say, ‘Mail in your ballot, mail in your ballot.’ But it’s like, I don’t even trust the bank with mobile deposits. Why would I trust the post office with my vote?”
If Valenzuela can’t convince you that the system is secure, Jeff Ellington will.
Ellington, a Midwestern transplant and product of Purdue University, is the president and COO of Runbeck Election Services. Located just down the road from Valenzuela’s office in Phoenix, Runbeck is America’s largest publisher of election materials. The company has printed more than 200 million ballots since Ellington joined the company in 2011—and more than 75 million ballots this year alone.
Stepping inside the Runbeck warehouse is something akin to looking under the hood of a spaceship. The intricacy of the equipment and the technology is almost too much to comprehend. The deafening roar of machinery—tens of millions of dollars’ worth—is the sound of democracy having its wheels greased.
When Runbeck agreed to let me visit the headquarters, I wasn’t sure how much access they would grant. The company takes security seriously, and for good reason: Runbeck has in its care the constitutional right of tens of millions of Americans. The premises are heavily protected, around the clock, by a combination of cameras, armed guards and prison-style fencing. Employees are subjected to strict background checks. The semi-trucks that deliver the finished product—12 of them departed the day of my visit, each carrying 220,000 ballots—are weighed to the ounce, locked with a security seal and affixed with GPS tracking devices.
None of that kept Ellington from walking me straight down to the floor of the warehouse. For the next 90 minutes, he gave a primer on election security that few voters will ever see, answering no fewer than three dozen questions I posed about the integrity of the mail-voting process. What made the answers so persuasive was that Ellington wasn’t just telling me; he was showing me.
Ballot paper, for instance, has a very specific texture, weight and thickness. He handed it to me. Tabulation machines, Ellington explained, require a very specific stock and automatically reject any paper that does not conform. The same goes for dimension. Ellington picked up a small stack of test ballots that were the exact right texture, weight and thickness—but missed the dimensional mark by fractions of an inch. They were rejected. His point: Producing counterfeit ballots isn’t like producing counterfeit money, because any cashier can accept a fake $20 bill. The only way to process ballots is with a tabulation machine—which are formatted to accept exactly one form of paper.
The same concept applies, in reverse, with the production of the ballots. Ellington described how the company manufactures hundreds of thousands of variations of ballots—depending on state, county, congressional district, state Senate district, state legislative district, city or township, school district, not to mention language. I wanted to know how they kept them all straight. Surely, I told him, there had to be occasional mix-ups. Ellington shook his head and walked me over to the nucleus of the operation: Runbeck’s inserter machines.
Think of these machines as 30-foot-long robotic assembly lines. (These are well-paid robots; each machine costs $500,000.) The machine, he explained, takes its orders from a computer file. That file instructs the machine on precisely which ballot type to assemble. Because each ballot type has a designated barcode, the machine reads not only what materials to include in the ballot packet—instructions, literature, the ballot itself, and critically, a return envelope—but also the exact weight, thickness and dimensions of the finished packet. Lifting up the lid of the machine, Ellington showed me the leveling lasers that measure the outgoing product. “If there’s an extra ‘I voted’ sticker in one of these packets, the machine detects it and shuts down,” he said. Ellington pointed to a couple of discarded packets in a bin. “Literally.”
But what about those packets? Does that mean someone isn’t getting their ballot? Or does it mean there are now duplicates? Could someone get multiple ballots and vote twice?
Ellington pulled up the machine’s computer screen. Because each voting jurisdiction is ordering a specific number of ballot packets for a specific number of voters, and paying Runbeck to assemble and mail them, it’s pretty easy to track production. Let’s say a county in Utah orders 3,001 ballots of a specific type for one of its townships. The machine sets up for a “run” of 3,001 packets. As each of those 3,0001 ballots enter the inserter, its barcode is read by cameras and the machine pulls down from the database all the materials needed for that voter’s packet. After it’s assembled, a second barcode—a barcode for every individual voter, printed on the return envelope being stuffed inside their packet—is scanned by the cameras and checked against the database. This is done to confirm that the address matches the ballot. If the individual voter barcode matches the ballot type barcode, the packet is complete and ready to be shipped.
Sometimes there’s a misfire. If an address doesn’t match a ballot type, the machine shuts down. If a barcode is read and does not belong to the programmed run, the machine shuts down. If an assembled packet is too thick, or too heavy, the machine shuts down. This doesn’t happen much—and when it does, it’s easy to pinpoint what went wrong. This is the genius of the individual voter barcode: If a person’s ballot packet is discarded for any reason, that barcode is flagged as bad, voided from the system, and a new individual voter barcode is created. This way there can be no fear of duplicates. It also prevents against any ballots being left behind. If there is a single one missing—if the inserter spits out 3,000 packets instead of 3,0001—the entire run is flagged as incomplete. The run cannot clear the system until 3,001 identical ballot packets are placed inside 3,001 mailing envelopes with 3,001 unique return envelopes tucked inside.
If signature verification is the heartbeat of Rey Valenzuela’s verification process, then barcodes are the key to Ellington’s security system. The answer to almost every question I asked was answered by the rectangle of black stripes printed on every ballot and each return envelope. Not only does the individualized nature of the ballot types and return envelopes make double voting impossible; it makes tracking ballots effortless for both the voter and the election administrator. (Almost every jurisdiction now enables voters to track their mail ballots, from the time they’re dropped at the post office to the moment they’re received by election officials.) Meanwhile, if something goes wrong with a specific ballot type—an ink smear, perhaps, or a misspelled name—the jurisdiction knows exactly who got them, how many have been returned, how many are outstanding, and which ballot barcodes should be invalidated from the system while replacements are being ordered.
“That’s the awesome thing about mail voting. When mistakes happen with the ballot, you can get them fixed really fast, and it doesn’t create huge problems like it would on Election Day,” Ellington said. “Like, just this week, 2,100 voters in L.A. County got bad ballots. The county forgot to list the presidential race on one of their 239,000 ballot styles, and it affected about 2,100 ballots. As soon as they realized the error, those ballots were invalidated, and new ones were shipped. The people affected already got the new ballots.”
I asked Ellington about the president putting mail voting in the crosshairs. He arched an eyebrow.
“I’m not a partisan. I work with elected and appointed officials all over the country, Republican and Democrat, and all they want to do is run good elections,” he said. “Historically, people love mail voting. People in red states like Utah. People in blue states like California. It’s never been a partisan thing. Nobody cared until this year.”
He allowed a chuckle that sounded more like a groan. “Maybe after we get through this election cycle, after we get some normalcy back in our lives, it won’t be such an issue anymore.”
It was a biting cold October afternoon in Appleton, Wisconsin, when Dave Nelton walked into the headquarters of the Outagamie County Democratic Party.
I was discussing the state of the race in Wisconsin with Benjamin Wells, a local campaign strategist, when Nelton came in hoping to buy a yard sign. As the three of us made some small talk, I could tell that Nelton wasn’t a fierce partisan. I asked him why he’d come to get the Biden décor.
“I’m worried,” he replied.
A retired businessman, Nelton, 69, has lived in Appleton for 30 years. He raised a family, built a community and lived in peace. But now, he said, it felt like things were coming unglued. There was a “layered system” of justice and economics that was perpetuating a stark class divide. There was a “sudden lack of confidence” in the institutions he’d spent his life leaning on. There was a sense of “exhaustion, total exhaustion” with the political climate of 2020.
And yet, Nelton wanted a yard sign. Because the thing that really worried him—the concern that tied his other concerns together—was the deliberate undermining of American elections.
“Look, voter fraud is a legitimate concern, I think, but it’s been exploited by Trump for these obvious political purposes. And the fact is, there’s very little evidence of it occurring the way he says it does,” Nelton said. “We don’t have any examples of systemic voter fraud. But you know what we do have examples of? Systemic voter suppression. It’s everywhere. It’s gotten worse. You want to talk about lack of confidence in the system? Look no further.”
Wells, the local operative, jumped in. He described the “constantly shifting goalposts” over the past year with endless changes and challenges to voting laws, followed by court rulings, followed by appeals, all of which serve to confuse and sometimes disenfranchise people.
“That’s the problem I see, as far as people not having confidence in the system, and it’s gotten really bad over the past six months,” Wells said.
Dave threw up his arms. “And then you’ve got all these issues with the postal service!” he exclaimed. “As if the real issues aren’t bad enough, with the delays and whatnot, you’ve got people making up stories about postmen throwing ballots in creeks!”
We all had a good laugh over that. But it was gallows humor. The president’s insistence that mail ballots had been dumped into a creek, or a river, or a riverbed—his wording has changed several times—has no apparent basis in truth. Despite breathless Fox News reports and social media postings perpetuating the initial claim by a local sheriff that ballots were found in late September among three trays of mail found just off State Road 96, near Greenville, an investigation by the Wisconsin Elections Commission found none of the state’s ballots were among that mail.
By this time, the county party chairman, Matt Lederer, had joined us. He had his own thoughts on the scandal that wasn’t.
“The problem is, the news is moving so fast, and there’s so much stuff out there, that unless you’re in tune with every new thing, every single day, you’re working with bad information,” Lederer said. “Everyone was already on edge because of this election, and then you add in this thing that never happened.”
Lederer, 43, a mild-mannered stay-at-home dad, thought his biggest challenge this cycle would be handling the flood of questions about mail ballot guidelines and post office procedures. If only.
“Think about it: How many people who saw the first story about ballots being found in a ditch outside Appleton, Wisconsin, saw the follow-up story that there were actually no ballots found at all?” he asked. “Probably a very small minority of the first group, by comparison. The first one went nationwide, and I’m pretty sure the correction to the first one didn’t reach anyone outside the Fox Valley.”
Nelton, for his part, was a bit nervous about voting by mail. But he had just come from dropping off his ballot—and raved about the experience.
“I had already filled out the ballot, and it happened to be in the car as I drove past city hall just now, so we pulled in,” he said. “And I have to tell you, it was absolutely slick. They had three or four ballot boxes set up. Didn’t even have to get out of the car. I dropped it in and drove away. I don’t know why we don’t do this every election. It was really slick. Really, really smooth.”
Of course, not everything has been smooth with Outagamie County lately. As if the ballots-in-the-ditch buzz wasn’t enough, local elections officials were hit with more trouble just before I got to town. The cause? While testing some sample mail ballots in their tabulation machines, they discovered an ink blemish that caused them to be rejected. When officials traced the production run to the local printer, they concluded that thousands of ballots had been affected by the error. Now they were scrambling to get a ruling from the courts on what to do. The options: election workers could fill in the blemish with a black marker, an easy way to meet the tabulation machine’s requirement without tainting the integrity of the ballot; or they could transfer the selections from the rejected ballots onto new, acceptable ballots, a move that would consume more time and introduce far more risk of error.
Whatever the eventual verdict—the Wisconsin Supreme Court punted the case Thursday, likely forcing Outagamie County to transfer the ballot selections—the episode captures the best and the worst of our voting system. On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that a mistake is further eroding voters’ confidence in the election. On the other hand, the fact that the mistake was caught, that the damage was limited, that a fix is being made, is proof that the system is working.
“This process utilizes human labor and mechanical equipment, both of which may have minor mistakes in it,” said Lori O’Bright, the Outagamie County clerk. When we spoke, a few days after the misprint was announced, she sounded depleted of good cheer. I could understand why. Although she tried to project confidence, local officials in both parties told me they’d been flooded with calls about the misprint issue. After all the negative attention associated with the phony post office story, the last thing Outagamie County needed was a @realdonaldtrump tweet about more bad ballots in northern Wisconsin. (The president has not yet tweeted about the ink stain; local officials are holding their breath.)
I asked O’Bright, a Republican, whether she worries about what the public believes—and where they get their information. “We are the reliable source,” she said. “People rely on us to get press releases out to the public and to be transparent, and that’s what we’ve done here. And the state government is doing that as well. They’re making sure to tell the public they need to look at reliable sources for information, not”—she took a long pause—“not their social media.”
In the effort to battle disinformation and keep the public calm, O’Bright got an important vote of confidence from Matthew Albert, the chairman of the Outagamie County Republican Party. When I visited the GOP headquarters, Albert, like his counterparts at the Democratic Party, was waiting for clarity on the misprint issue. But he didn’t betray any real concern about it. “I’m very confident in the clerks here. They have been on top of things,” he said. “Obviously we’re going to have poll watchers, like both parties always do, but we feel good about the process and the clerks here.”
I asked Albert about the source of his confidence—and how he feels about the voting system more broadly.
“When people ask me, what’s the surest way for them to make certain that their ballot is counted, I tell them to take it to the clerk’s office—either go drop it off early or vote in-person. Because once it’s there, it’s safe. There’s very little risk of anything happening to a ballot once it’s inside that clerk’s office,” Albert said, motioning toward a list of ballot drop-off locations that he keeps handy.”
“The other thing I try to tell people,” he continued, “is that clerks don’t run these elections. Republicans and Democrats do, in numbers that are about even. Clerks provide all the logistical support and make sure everything’s running on time. But Republicans and Democrats, they’re the ones counting, they’re the ones supervising, they’re the ones making sure it’s done right.”
When we got to talking about the deeper issue of institutional confidence, Albert, a 33-year-old whiz kid who ran the state party’s field operation in 2016, argued that Trump’s broadsides—however exaggerated—are making the system stronger. Kind of like the way a virus spurs the body’s immune system.
“What the president has been saying about election integrity, that’s something a lot of people have been worried about for a long time. And now there’s a spotlight on it like never before,” Albert said. “Even if you believe Democrats are busing people in from Chicago—which may or may not have happened in the past—even if you believe there’s ballot tampering or ballot harvesting going on, I don’t think there’s any way people are getting away with that right now. The Trump campaign is on it like white on rice. They’re watching everything. … And by the way, so are the Democrats.”
The other thing everyone is watching: how quickly the mail ballots can be tallied. In Wisconsin, as well as Michigan and Pennsylvania, clerks are not allowed to count any votes until Election Day. Given the historic number of mail ballots piling up, these critical swing states face an unprecedented backlog of votes. Because these ballots will take much longer to count than the ones cast in-person on Election Day—and because Democrats are voting by mail at double or triple the rate of Republicans—there is a live possibility that Trump will race out to a large lead on November 3, only to watch it dwindle over the ensuing 72 hours. This is what’s keeping many county clerks up at night: If Trump comes out and declares victory with only a fraction of the results in, only for their prolonged count to bring Biden into the lead after three or four days, how does the president react? How does right-wing media react? How do Trump voters react?
“People’s lives are the most important thing to me,” O’Bright said. “I don't say that tritely, but some people, they sometimes take things to violence. That would be my nightmare. I don't want to see anyone getting hurt due to an election.”
Albert smirked when I brought it up. “We’re preparing people for a shift in votes to the left, with those mail ballots being counted after Election Day,” he said. “The thing that’s going to make people nervous is if they see, in tandem, that large shift in votes, which we expect, with a bunch of election problems. If those things happen together, you might see a lot of people questioning things.”
He added, “But this idea that Republicans are going to take to the streets and do what the left has been doing for months—I don’t see us doing that.”
The man who brought me to Albert’s office was Ramon Fernando. In addition to driving for Uber and Lyft, Fernando works as a delivery man for WalMart. He told me the pandemic has made 2020 difficult, but that the highlight of his year will be casting his first-ever vote in an American election. After being in the U.S. for two decades, Fernando, an immigrant from Central America, earned his citizenship last year.
I asked him whether he trusted the election to be conducted honestly. He was silent for an uncomfortably long period. Then, at a red light, he turned around.
“People in America have no idea how lucky they are,” he said. “When you have lived in third-world countries, where there is nothing but cheating and corruption, then you appreciate how America is a place where things are fair. Do I trust it here? Yes. Absolutely.”
A few weeks earlier, in Arizona, I had spoken with another proud immigrant—one who expressed a similar sentiment yet held a diverging view of certain American institutions.
When I met Dragan Razmilovic, a 73-year-old lab technician, outside the Pence rally in Peoria, he had just celebrated a milestone. “Last week was my 50th anniversary of coming to this great land,” Razmilovic beamed. “I was 23 years old and just finished with my years of mandatory military service in Yugoslavia. I had to get the hell out of there as quickly as I could; all I’d ever wanted was to emigrate to the United States. People who were born here, they will never understand how marvelous this country is.”
Compared to the oppression and unceasing conflict that has defined much of eastern Europe, Razmilovic said, the American tradition of representative government and peaceful, egalitarian rule by popular consent is a utopia. There is just one thing he doesn’t trust: the ballot box.
“After 50 years, the one thing I know is crooked in this country is the elections. I know because I have seen it firsthand,” Razmilovic said. “I became a citizen at 28; my first election was in Chicago. I went up to a precinct captain and said, ‘How do I vote?’ And the guy took me over, filled out the ballot and stuck it into the machine. He said, ‘That’s how.’ And I said, ‘OK, now where is my ballot?’ And he said, ‘You just casted it. Congratulations.’”
Razmilovic, a tall man, his face covered in salt-and-pepper stubble, furrowed his brow in exaggerated confusion. “That was my first time voting in this country. And I believe the same sort of cheating happens every election, everywhere, depending on which party controls the area,” he said. “This is not about Democrats or Republicans; I hate all the politicians. But I do believe each side is always trying to cheat.”
When Trump first launched his candidacy five years ago, Razmilovic had no appetite for it. He has liberal domestic priorities—“health care for everyone, education for everyone, pensions for everyone”—and did not like Trump’s “brash” demeanor. But he became a supporter, first casually and then emotionally, largely because of the president’s hardline stance against illegal immigration. (“People sneak in, refused to learn the language, we pay for their school and health care and food stamps, and they call me a bigot for being mad about it?” he fumed.) On this day, Razmilovic was decked out in American flag shorts, a MAGA hat and a t-shirt that showed a map of Trump’s national vote share versus Clinton’s in 2016. The caption read: “Can you hear us now?”
I asked Razmilovic whether he thought Biden could defeat Trump in a fair election.
“Not a chance,” he shook his head.
His response reminded me of so many conversations I’d had with voters over the past year, particularly since Covid-19 swept the nation and triggered a historic rush toward mail voting.
It reminded me of Deborah Fuqua-Frey, a retired GM worker who lives in Willis, Michigan, and claimed to have witnessed her old comrades at the United Auto Workers union “stuff the ballot box” on Election Days past.
It reminded me of Hunter Kaufmann, a 21-year-old Navy enlistee and self-described “queer socialist” who told me at a Columbus, Ohio, watering hole that he felt 100 percent certain Trump “would cheat to win another term.”
Most of all, it reminded me of Lynn Bartz, the district Republican chair in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, who insisted the only way Trump could lose reelection was if the system was rigged against him.
The morning after talking with Bartz, I met her superior, Luzerne County GOP chairman Justin Behrens, for coffee at a local bookstore.
When I relayed to Behrens what Bartz professed to believe—not just about a corrupt election broadly, but about those nine ballots in Luzerne County being intentionally thrown away as part of a scheme to beat Trump—he leaned back in his chair and winced. Behrens, a military veteran and social worker who runs two large homeless shelters in the area, was never much of a MAGA enthusiast. He has supported the president’s policies but gets visibly uncomfortable when pressed to explain Trump’s behavior and rhetoric.
“Look, I have a lot of concerns with Luzerne County’s election bureau,” he said, measuring his words. “What happened was human error, and Shelby caught it. I don't blame the county for this, by the way. I blame the state for throwing all this at them. We expect all these counties to run a presidential election under new rules, and the fact is they're unequipped, undermanned, totally unprepared for this. And that’s not OK. Like, we could have done this on an off-year election to make sure that we got all our ducks in a row before a presidential election.”
I asked Behrens about the realities imposed by Covid-19 and whether he sympathized with people wanting to vote by mail.
“Not unless they’re sick or compromised, no. I really don’t,” he said. “If you can shop for groceries or go to dinner, you can vote in person. The mail balloting is why we’re in this mess. Do I think anything malicious happened in Luzerne County? Not at all. But the mail ballots are confusing everyone. They caught nine this time. But who’s to say there aren’t a thousand, or ten thousand thrown away by mistake somewhere else?”
He continued, “All I want is to make sure there’s a process for everyone’s vote to be counted. That’s a sacred responsibility. And that’s why both parties have poll watchers. The majority of the stuff that goes wrong is going to be human error, which can be prevented with poll watchers, because their job is to make sure all the rules and processes are followed. Their job isn’t to make trouble or level accusations. I tell our poll watchers, you better not interrupt the people counting—no yelling, no screaming, no stopping the process. You report it, and we go from there. We have a system set up to challenge things.”
All of this sounded reasonable enough. And yet, as our conversation went on, and I pressed Behrens for answers on specific questions about specific statements from the president and specific scenarios that could play out in November, his answers took on a darker and more conspiratorial tint.
He used the word “manipulation” no fewer than a dozen times. He said he agreed with Trump that millions of ballots had been cast illegally in 2016. He told me that he watched buses full of people from New York pull into West Hazleton, Pennsylvania, on Election Day that year, pouring into a polling station and casting votes they should not have been able to cast. When I asked, incredulously, for further details on this story, Behrens said he would put me in touch with the town’s former mayor, Frank Schmidt, who could corroborate all the details. “He was standing there right next to me,” he said.
Behrens did not respond to numerous follow-up messages asking for Schmidt’s contact information. When I reached the former mayor by phone at his home, he told me he never saw any buses in West Hazleton in 2016. He did say, however, that “maybe eight or ten” people from New York tried to vote in his precinct. “But we turned them all away,” Schmidt told me. “We have safeguards in place for that kind of thing, you know.”
As our conversation wound down at the bookstore in Luzerne County, I shared with Behrens my confusion at his contradictory sentiments—emphasizing human error and legitimate oversight in one breath, then floating mass manipulation and wild conspiracy theories in the next.
Behrens shrugged his shoulders. “There is great doubt in this country right now,” he said.