Pennsylvania becomes a battleground over election security

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Philadelphia resident Priscilla Bennett receives her mail-in ballot at the opening of a satellite election office at Temple University's Liacouras Center, on Sept. 29, 2020, in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is one of this year's most hotly contested battleground states and also is facing a flurry of lawsuits, complaints and partisan finger-pointing over its election procedures and systems. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

HARRISBURG, Pa. – For anxiety over voting and ballot counting in this year’s presidential election, it’s hard to top Pennsylvania.

Election officials in Philadelphia, home to one-fifth of the state's Democratic voters, have been sued by President Donald Trump’s campaign, blasted by the president as overseeing a place “where bad things happen” and forced to explain security measures after a theft from a warehouse full of election equipment.

Add to that an investigation into military ballots that were mistakenly discarded in one swing county, partisan sniping in the state Capitol over the processing of what is expected to be an avalanche of mailed-in ballots and an 11th hour attempt by Republican lawmakers to create an election integrity commission.

One of the most hotly contested presidential battleground states is trying to conduct a pandemic election in a hyper-partisan environment where every move related to the voting process faces unrelenting scrutiny from both sides. State and local election officials say they are doing all they can to make sure Pennsylvania doesn’t end up like Florida two decades ago, when the last drawn-out presidential tally ended before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“For years, we have trusted our election officials to be reliable and nonpartisan. Why should we suddenly not trust them?” said Eileen Olmsted with the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan organization that advocates to expand access to voting. “A lot of this is based on the perception of voter fraud, which there is absolutely no evidence of.”

In many ways, Pennsylvania election officials are in the same position as their colleagues across the country, with the pandemic forcing them to alter their normal procedures. Other states also are using new voting systems this year and facing lawsuits over election procedures.

But the stakes are higher in Pennsylvania than in most other states. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania native, has visited it more than any other state since Sept. 1, and TV spending is higher than in any other state except Florida, according to the political ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.

Trump won Pennsylvania narrowly in 2016 — by less than 1 percentage point — to become the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1988. Tied for the fifth-most electoral votes, it is of the utmost value to both Trump and Biden. Polls show a tight race in Pennsylvania, with Biden holding a single-digit lead, often within the margin of error.