Monday, October 27, 2008

Election Day - 2006: A Chester County Story

WE'VE MOVED! Democratic Convention Watch is now at

I received this in an e-mail from the McIlvain Smith campaign, in a district near to my own. It's reprinted with permission, and a great reminder of the fact that every vote counts. Stories like this abound in all 50 states. Jim is a volunteer with Barb's campaign.

As Election Day 2008 approaches, I'm reminded of how Barbara McIlvaine Smith's election in 2006 taught me the importance of every single vote. As we now know, she won by just 28. In the process, Barb's victory changed the leadership of the State House by one seat. But it felt even closer than that.

On election night in 2006, those of us working on Barb's campaign gathered in the back room of a restaurant next to her campaign headquarters to follow the election returns. The results came in with agonizing slowness. One precinct would report in. Barb was up by a handful of votes. Then another precinct tally would post. She was behind by a dozen or so.

Somewhere in the clamor, one of our poll watchers, Committeeperson Stephanie Markstein, came to tell us that election officials at her poll had forgotten to scan the absentee ballots and then included them unopened in the bag which went to Chester County Voter Services. Then a poll watcher from a different area said the same thing had happened in his precinct. We hoped the margin of victory would be large enough to not care about this.

The night dragged on into the early morning hours. As the last precinct totals hit the computer screens, our worst fears came true: Barb was down by 19 votes. Suddenly, those missing absentee ballots looked VERY important, indeed. But calls to Voter Services were ineffective. The clerk answering the phone would not comment.

Not one to go unanswered, Campaign Manager Lani Frank said she had to go to Voter Services herself to track the missing absentee votes. Election day had begun at 6:30 AM; it was now after 4 AM. I wasn't about to let her drive in the now pouring rain. I drove her car, Barb's webmaster Lane Randall drove ours, and we all arrived at Voter Services, a ragtag of very agitated citizens.

No luck. The managers at Voters Services could only confirm there were uncounted absentee votes in the sealed bags from precincts representing every municipality in the district. That meant there were hundreds of uncounted votes, something Voter Services had not seen before. To our frustration, they decided the bags would remain sealed until all other votes were counted.

By the next day, the Chester County Government Services Center was awash with representatives and lawyers from both campaigns and both political parties. Barb, Lani and all of us were in the middle of a nail-biter of an election which would go until December 21st and make news across the country.

But first, we had to deal with vacating Barb's campaign headquarters, packing things up while still not knowing the outcome. A tough day.

The Philadelphia Inquirer had dispatched a reporter to the scene to blog daily. There were legal motions. There were court appearances.

It took until after Thanksgiving before the uncounted absentee ballots were finally scanned. Barb was the apparent winner by 23 votes!

In Harrisburg, some Democrats celebrated, but the Republicans asked for a recount of all votes. The two Republican County Commissioners rejected all provisional ballots. There was much gnashing of teeth and much coffee consumed.

Finally, Judge Howard F. Riley, Jr., ruled all accepted ballots would be counted by hand and told Voter Services to begin and continue "each day thereafter." So we gathered again, with appointed observers and lawyers at each table, while Voter Services sorted the ballots one by one into two piles and resolved questions: was a circled oval a vote; how about a checkmark or a dot?

And then, four days before Christmas, surrounded by lawyers and official observers, with reporters and TV cameras peeking in the door windows, the indefatigable staff of Voter Services counted the very last precinct (it was West Chester Ward 7) and announced: Barbara McIlvaine Smith had now received 28 more votes than her opponent.

We still weren't done. There were pending legal challenges to the provisional ballots, but a quickly convened appearance before Judge Riley resulted in a settlement agreeable to both sides, certifying the election, even though the provisional ballots were never counted.

But finally, Barb was officially Representative-Elect for the 156th Legislative District, and Democrats had won the majority in the House for the first time in twelve years.

Now, after all of that, do you think we will ever accept someone saying their vote doesn't matter? Will you ever let anyone get away with saying that to you? And on this election day, November 4, 2008, will YOU be sure to cast your one precious vote?

Jim Salvas