Still under the state-of-emergency order issued late last month, thousands of West Chester residents, replete with masks and hand sanitizer, cast their vote for local and federal offices between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. yesterday. While turnout was vastly lower than expected in person, the record numbers of mail-in ballots brought overall participation up to similar levels as they were in 2016, as voters feel the pressure of what many are calling one of the most intense and polarizing elections in recent memory.
The town of West Chester is separated into seven voting wards, with one polling station servicing each ward. For many polling stations, the story was the same; after an early surge of voters, peaking between 9 and 11 a.m., attendance slowed to a trickle. At their busiest, queues for the polling stations reached an hour to an hour and a half, stretching around the block. In Coatesville, some voters waited upwards of an hour and, in the more conservative areas outside of Coatesville, some lines reached waits of two to three hours. As noon hit, the before-work crowd began to wane and the queues started to dry up and stayed slow for the rest of the day. Even the after-work rush that polls have historically experienced between 5 and 8 p.m. was nowhere to be seen. One campaign volunteer standing outside the First Presbyterian Church polling station around 5:15 p.m. remarked that those waiting outside the polls on behalf of a candidate had been outnumbering the number of voters in line.
While slower turnout helped conflict at the polling stations themselves remain minimal, elsewhere in town, tension remained high. Roland Jennings, a member of the West Chester Democrats who spent the day outside of the Iron Works Church polling station, recounted a threat he had received earlier that morning as he held a Biden sign at the corner of High and Market streets. A truck pulled up next to Jennings, who is Black, and the driver rolled down the window, making a comment about Jennings’ sign and threatening him with a rope he had in his car. Elsewhere, conflict was less explicit. In the early afternoon, a man waved a Trump flag and yelled at passersby from the bed of his truck next to the Giant on Downingtown Pike, drawing polarized reactions from passing cars. William Turner, the Acting Director of Chester County Voting Services, told Quad reporters that he had received a handful of complaints about a group misrepresenting themselves as poll watchers around town, but partisan volunteers outside of polling stations showed little knowledge or concern about the group.
Present at each polling location were tables with volunteers campaigning on behalf of each candidate, carrying pamphlets, buttons, candy and, in one case, homemade T-shirts for arriving voters. While the Biden and Trump tables outside of each polling location did not directly conflict throughout the day, an election official told us that the borough had received multiple complaints of pro-Trump tables outside of the voting areas being too aggressive or persistent towards voters. The tables, which carried no logos or identifiers associating them with the official Chester County Republicans group, varied widely in scale and message. Outside of the station in the WCU Student Recreation Center, the table held a Trump flag and some pamphlets. On the table outside of the Iron Works Church, there was a small pile of candy, some pamphlets and a sign that read “Biden’s Laptop Matters,” referencing a disproven accusation that emails found on a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son connect the candidate to corrupt dealings in China and Ukraine. Outside of the station at First Unitarian Church, pro-Trump staff walked around with nothing to identify them as such, except for the pamphlets they gave to arriving voters. None of these tables would answer in-depth when we tried to ask them about the day’s proceedings, and a few flatly refused to speak to us.
Also present outside of First Presbyterian Church, local members of a youth environmental advocacy group known as the Sunrise Movement set up a table and spoke to voters. Representing the Henderson High School chapter of the organization, four students staked out at the polls from start to end, encouraging people to “triple their vote” by reaching out to three of their friends and asking them to come out to the polls before casting their own vote.
While turnout for in-person polls was less than expected, factoring in mail-in ballots brought the percentage of eligible voters up to average/greater than average levels. By 4:30 p.m., a West Chester Democrats representative told us that turnout had already reached 65% of eligible voters in the third ward of West Chester, 5% higher than the national turnout in the 2016 election. At the Student Recreation Center, the polling location for the fifth ward, West Chester Democrats reported 60% of Democrats in the ward had requested mail-in ballots, three-quarters of which had been filled out and returned.
Elsewhere in the county, nerves ran high as voters and poll workers alike shared their excitement and reservation about the precarious state of politics and the vital importance of Pennsylvania in deciding the election. “I’m excited,” said one voter in Chester Springs. “It feels like my vote matters more.” Most others agreed that Pennsylvania’s status as one of the most hotly contested and influential swing states of the election gave them just one more reason to show up to the polls. “I feel like my vote is more important than my parents in Delaware,” said another voter. For some, voting in person was a tradition. For others, it was a matter of security. “I’m nervous that the interpretation of election laws locally and federally could be changed last minute,” said a voter in Phoenixville. As debates over what votes should be counted rage across the country, interpretation of each state’s distinct laws surrounding mail-in and in-person voting are adding another variable to an already tense process. “I’m not a fan of the extended time limits [for the counting of mail-in ballots] by the federal government,” said one poll worker in Ludwig’s Corner. “The election should be decided by votes counted on Election Day, as far as I’m concerned.” Only yesterday, a ruling was announced to let 127,000 Texas ballots be counted that state Republicans tried to throw out over a disagreement on voting law. One thing that most voters seemed to be able to agree on was that whatever the outcome of the election, the results were unlikely to go down smoothly.
In Ehinger Gym on WCU’s campus, we found the gym floor converted into an assembly line, where all 138,000 mail-in ballots from Chester County voters were being verified, opened, flattened and fed through counting machines by a roomful of masked election staff. Out of 380,000 registered voters in Chester County, said Public Information Officer Becky Brain, 172,000 requested mail-in ballots. Each returned ballot was received at the rear of the gym, where the voter declaration was verified and the weight of the envelope checked. For “naked ballots,” which have been filed without the additional secrecy envelope and cannot be counted, two poll watchers, one from each party, will attempt to get in contact with the voter to direct them to a polling station where they can receive a last-minute “provisional” ballot. The number of ballots cast this way, Brain says, is extremely small and has shrunk even further since the primaries because of increased awareness of voting policy. The ballots that have been filed correctly are sent through a slicing machine, which separates the external envelopes from the secrecy envelopes inside. The secrecy envelopes are then fed through another machine that removes the ballot from the envelope. After separation, ballots are distributed in stacks on approximately 20 tables set up around the gym floor, each occupied by two workers that flatten the ballots so they can be fed into the counting machines. Brain compares this part of the process to smoothing out a dollar before feeding it into a vending machine. After the ballots are flattened, workers send them through the counting machines where the votes are logged onto media sticks and transported to the Government Services Center on Westtown Road. The entire process, which began at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3 and is expected to last until the morning of Nov. 4, is staffed by county employees and a few hired temp workers. Overseeing the entire process from the balcony overlooking the gymare two poll watchers in yellow vests, one from each party, who ensure all ballots are being handled correctly.
As Democrats are disproportionately more likely to vote by mail than Republicans, the election is expected to appear initially in Trump’s favor, then be pulled back toward the center as mail-in ballots are counted. While West Chester’s Election Day this year may have looked different from the Election Days of years past, signs point to high voter turnout in the borough after adjusting for mail-in ballots. As of midnight, the race is still far too young to tell who will emerge as the next President of the United States.