PHILADELPHIA — Five days before Election Day here, hundreds of people logged onto Zoom to learn about how to take on threats to voting that they could encounter at the polls.
Shawna Foster, a coordinator with the progressive coalition Election Defenders, instructed volunteers who will be stationed at polling places in Pennsylvania and other states to immediately report troublesome problems they encounter.
“We want you to document instances where people are with weapons, people are coughing on other people, people are yelling at others in line,” she said. “People yelling racial slurs or threats. We want you to report if there’s legal issues. Polls closing early.”
Joe Biden leads in Pennsylvania by 4 or 5 percentage points, according to polling averages. But there is tremendous anxiety among Democrats that President Donald Trump’s campaign efforts to restrict mail-in voting here could tilt the race, and its promised deployment of a legion of poll watchers could lead to potential intimidation at voting sites.
So in addition to the normal get-out-the-vote frenzy in Pennsylvania in the days before a presidential election, local and national Democratic groups, as well as voting rights advocates, are preparing for worst-case scenarios: Right-wing militias at polling places. Mountains of mail-in ballots getting tossed out over technicalities or challenged by Trump’s team. Pennsylvania resembling the Florida of the 2000 election. A Trump declaration of victory in this critical battleground state before many of the votes are counted.
“I’m very pleased to let you know that everything’s under control and we don’t expect any problems,” joked Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, on a call last week with reporters. “Sorry, we all need a little levity in all of this tension.”
Because this is the first year that Pennsylvania has allowed no-excuse mail voting, there is uncertainty around what exactly the early voting numbers mean. Trump has stoked fears about mail-in ballots, polarizing a voting method that both parties in other states long utilized in past years.
As predicted, that’s led to many more registered Democrats in Pennsylvania casting mail ballots than Republicans. Democratic voters have banked nearly 1.6 million votes, compared to 553,000 for Republicans so far. But Trump supporters are disproportionately planning to vote on Election Day.
Registered Democrats around the state who have received mail ballots are turning them in at a higher rate (82 percent) than Republicans (70 percent). At the same time, Hawkfish, a Democratic data firm, has raised alarms about lower return rates among minority voters in Philadelphia, especially Latinos.
Despite the fact that Trump has been down in virtually every survey here this year, many Republicans are looking to Pennsylvania as Trump’s best chance to carry one of the three Rust Belt states that put him in the White House in 2016 — in part because the race is closer here than in Wisconsin or Michigan, according to public surveys.
Trump allies believe they can counter Biden’s strength in the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia and Pittsburgh because, they said, his support has exploded in pro-Trump areas such as western and northeastern Pennsylvania. They also think the president will limit his losses in Philadelphia.
“In the northeast, people waited hours just to wave to his car. They had no chance of hearing him, seeing him,” said former GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, who represented the region, referring to a Trump rally close to Biden’s birthplace of Scranton. “This is just a couple miles from Joe Biden’s so-called hometown.”
But other Republicans think Trump is facing a steep climb here.
“There’s three big differences this time than last time. He’s not the challenger. He’s the incumbent, so undecideds who can’t stand any candidate always go with the devil they don’t know,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant. “Number two, Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. People had a lot of bad feelings toward Hillary Clinton. They just don’t feel that way about Biden, so it’s harder to demonize him. And the other thing is there are no real viable thirty-party candidates out there.”
In a sign of how critical Pennsylvania is to the election, both candidates are barnstorming the state in the days before Nov. 3. Trump held four rallies here on Saturday, and will campaign in Luzerne County, which supported him after backing President Barack Obama twice, on Monday. Biden was stumping in Philadelphia Sunday, and will campaign across the state on the eve of Election Day, too.
Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, a top Biden ally here, expressed confidence that the former vice president will carry the state — and said the networks might even call it for him here on Election Night. He also predicted Biden will win Northampton and Erie, two counties that flipped from supporting Obama to Trump in 2016.
But he is concerned about other possibilities: “The president and his party will do anything, including breaking the law, to try to win the election. That’s a factor you usually don’t have.”
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