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Schmidt calls turnover among county election officials in Pennsylvania ‘a real concern’

Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt holds an election night press conference Nov. 7, 2023 (Credit: Commonwealth Media Services)

Kim Lyons, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 26, 2024

Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt said Monday that the turnover among experienced election officials in Pennsylvania counties is “a real concern” ahead of the 2024 elections. Some 70 senior directors or those directly underneath them have left, Schmidt said, often meaning significant changes within the same county.

“When newer election administrators — and I was one for 10 years — are brought in they’re more likely to make errors in conducting their very complicated and very important and highly scrutinized responsibilities, especially in an environment where any mistake no matter how innocent, is so easily interpreted as being intentional, malicious, and seeking to change the outcome of an election,” Schmidt said.

In 2020, Schmidt, who had publicly refuted allegations of election fraud in Philadelphia, became the target of an attack by former President Donald Trump. Schmidt testified before the Jan. 6 House Select Committee in 2022 that he received graphic and specific threats against himself and his family after Trump tweeted about him in the days following the 2020 election.

Speaking Monday at the Pennsylvania Press Club’s monthly luncheon in downtown Harrisburg, Schmidt said such threats were a new phenomenon that year.

“I don’t know any election directors who really were on the receiving end of death threats or anything else like that prior to 2020,” he said, adding it’s likely had an effect on retaining election directors.

Schmidt said Monday that he’s been trying to meet in person with elections officials in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to find out how the Department of State can help them — or get out of their way.

“I know a lot about running elections in Philadelphia,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know anything about running elections in Elk County. I don’t know anything about running elections in Allegheny County, or I didn’t.”

Before he became Secretary of the Commonwealth in 2023, Schmidt was president and CEO of the nonprofit good-government organization Committee of Seventy, after serving as a Philadelphia City Commissioner for 10 years. Part of his role as a commissioner was serving on the three-member Board of Elections.

The Shapiro administration has tried to make improvements to the voting process in Pennsylvania, Schmidt said, which has included upgrading counties’ hardware and connectivity for the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE), Pennsylvania’s voter registration system. The hardware upgrades were completed last week, Schmidt said, while the connectivity piece is ongoing.

Shapiro’s executive order to make voter registration automatic at PennDOT centers has resulted in a 45% increase in voter registration activity, Schmidt said. It’s not all new voters, he added, but updates to addresses or party affiliations will help with the accuracy of voter rolls.

And, he added, about an equal number of people registered Republican as have registered Democrat as have registered as Independent, non-affiliated or or other.

Shapiro’s 2024-25 proposed budget includes $5 million for voter education, Schmidt said, as well as funding for positions to support election directors, and a voter-roll analysis. Any guidance issued to county election officials will be on the DOS website, he said, except for any last-minute court decisions the state might have to comply with.

Schmidt declined to speculate about when the Third Circuit court might rule on mail-in ballots; the court heard arguments on Feb. 20 about whether Pennsylvania’s undated mail-in ballots could be counted. But he noted that the state had redesigned its mail-in ballots this year, to try to minimize the chances that voters might make mistakes.

“It is absolutely awful to stand there with trays of votes that were cast by eligible registered voters who made a fatal defect in the completion of casting their vote and not being able to count those votes,” he said.

Asked what he learned while serving as Philadelphia City Commissioner in 2020, Schmidt said he “took for granted the trust and stability of our electoral process,” adding that he always took really seriously any allegations of voter fraud or election irregularities, even the ones that were complicated.

“Some are difficult to investigate because there’s no truckload of ballots being smuggled in by South Philly organized crime figures or whatever some of these stories were in 2020,” he said. “But I think I think you always have to take those sorts of things seriously and investigate them, but give them time before you reach a conclusion whether they have any basis in fact or not.”

Spreading allegations before they’ve been verified ultimately can have an impact on voters’ trust, he added. “I can’t measure it, but I’m convinced it’s harmful to voter turnout when people are repeating that elections are rigged, or ‘your vote doesn’t matter,’ and all the rest. I think there’s a great deal of responsibility we all bear to make sure that we all tell the truth about elections.”

Schmidt added that he’s regularly in touch with federal officials and state police, so that any threats to election administrators, “anything seeking to impede them from doing the important work that our entire system of government as a representative democracy relies on,” is taken seriously.

He choked up briefly when speaking about his experience with threats as he tried to do his job in 2020. “I was able to continue my work at the Pennsylvania Convention Center uninterrupted without sleep for days, while threats were directed toward my family,” Schmidt said. “It’s important that the election directors do what only they can do, and our partners in law enforcement do their jobs as well.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.