In Philadelphia, rumours give way to an ordinary election

By David Weigel

None of the voting matched the worst pre-election fears broadcast through the media, or thundered into microphones by Donald Trump. Photo / AP
None of the voting matched the worst pre-election fears broadcast through the media, or thundered into microphones by Donald Trump. Photo / AP

There were always rumours, but this year's were something else.

Politico reported that white nationalists would sneak liquor and marijuana into the city's blackest precincts. James O'Keefe tailed a church van, which was "busing people around," and uploaded a Twitter video asking whether they "shouldn't be doing it". More media than usual had bothered the city's outnumbered Republican Party, asking to see the drama unfold.

Once obliged, there was not much drama to be found. On Tuesday at his desk topped by paperwork and a figurine of the Games of Thrones villain Ramsey Bolton, Philadelphia Republican Party Chairman Joseph DeFelice said that more than 600 Republicans had been trained to watch the polls - up from 2008 and 2012, down about half from the close 2004 election.

"The key things to look out for are illegal assistance, people actively campaigning for a candidate," said DeFelice. He ruefully remembered one polling place, in 2008, where a mural of Barack Obama greeted every voter.

He did not remember any buses transporting voters in to cast fraudulent ballots, though like everyone, he's heard the rumours.

"This office is going to be insane tomorrow," he said.

Today, however, did its best impression of sanity. Shortly before 7am local time, at a firehouse in a gentrifying part of south Philadelphia, a line of 100-odd voters took up most of a pavement. Seth Kaufer, the second ward's Republican leader, flitted in and out of the polling place, occasionally under the hectoring of a Democratic poll-watcher named Louise Hannible, who wore a shirt commemorating Obama's 2008 victory.

"She has Hillary buttons on, which is illegal," said Vince Minniti, a poll-watcher who would be traveling around south Philadelphia.

"We got past the first obstacle," said Kaufer. "They're accepting our people at the tables. We're just making sure everything is legal."

At the firehouse, the people were Steve Campolongo, 42, and Charlie Molinari, 50. Neither had poll-watched before. Shortly after 7, they were allowed into the polls; shortly after 8, they walked out for fresh air and a debrief.

"Nothing so far," Molinari said.

Calls and texts were coming into Kaufer, at a steady pace, but each problem looked solvable. Half a mile away, at a polling station inside a Vietnamese restaurant, a woman who had been asked for ID had lodged a protest. Half a mile in the other direction, someone had been handing out literature too close to the polling station. An in-person inspection found that the culprit had not actually walked up to any voting booths, but lurked in the hallway outside.

As the day went on, voter assistance - electioneers looming over voters - emerged as the biggest problem. Poll watchers reporting that they had been excluded from the room emerged as the runner-up. The local party reported every incident on its Twitter feed.

The last item was from several counties away. By mid-day, the most dramatic story came from Brittany Foreman, who stood before a phone camera and reported yet more voter assistance. "I witnessed a committeeman, John Bush, assisting people on voting," she said. "He wasn't supposed to be helping people vote, but he was."

All of it was tracked and reported. None of it matched the worst pre-election fears broadcast through the media, or thundered into microphones by Donald Trump. There were no reports of buses shipping fraudulent voters from poll to poll, something that the quasi-militia group Oath Keepers had asked members to watch out for.

One way of looking at this: The electorate, and the parties, had learned from the past. Around 11am, outside a four-precinct polling place in a large church, Suzanne Hainey, who had run the ward before Kaufer, delivered a fresh Trump sign and stickers to replace one - of many - that had been taken down. Years ago, she said, there had indeed been a bus that transported illegal, repeating voters.

"I knew the man who drove that bus," she said. "I'm not going to say who he was."

But for all the problems of election day, the idea of massive fraud looked more remote. So did the idea of racists storming into Philadelphia to watch the polls on their own.

As the day went on, Democrats saw the humour in something very dark.

Clark Matthews, a first-time poll-watcher for the party, found himself without much to do as a steady stream of voters entered a south Philadelphia polling station, voted and left.

"I'm just here for the 40s and weed," he joked.

- Washington Post

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