2020 Elections Oral History Project | The 2020 Election

On Tuesday,  November 3rd, 2020, tensions were high but election officials were ready. They had worked hard to provide voters with as much information as they could in the face of domestic mis- and disinformation, trained thousands of poll workers at the last minute, secured safe and sanitary polling locations, and were settled in for a mail-in ballot counting process that would unavoidably delay the release of official election results in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The scenario was far from ideal, but officials persevered. Tens of millions of ballots across the country were cast safely and securely. The election was a success — but the drama had only just begun. 

 

In the days and weeks following Election Day, attacks on the result’s legitimacy, the election’s processes, and those who guided them reached an unprecedented fever pitch. The election community had been bracing for continued mis- and disinformation during ballot counting and immediately after the winner was announced, but they were wholly unprepared for the scope and scale of the lies. 

 

This was a national story. We offer two case studies. 

Philadelphia, PA would capture the nation’s attention in the final days of ballot counting as it officially tipped the scales in Joe Biden’s favor, but City Commissioner Al Schmidt could sense that the city would be in the crosshairs of election controversy long before November. 

"The Trump campaign, to me, very conspicuously made clear they were targeting Philadelphia.”

Al Schmidt, Philadelphia City Commissioner

Located in an important swing state, it worked in the Trump campaign’s favor to undermine the potentially disappointing results of one of the nation’s oldest cities. Commissioner Schmidt argues that the President and his surrogates purposefully exploited stereotypes of the city for his own gain.

“The former president’s campaign was very smart in communicating to normal people and exploiting things they had always thought about Philadelphia."

Al Schmidt, Philadelphia City Commissioner

Commissioner Schmidt, like officials across the country, was already prepared to run the safest and most secure election possible. But he now also had to take steps to wage an information campaign against accusations of fraud from the President and his surrogates. In order to do so, he arranged for the city’s ballot counting, which took place at the Philadelphia Convention Center, to be livestreamed and took time away from counting to actively counter misinformation on Twitter. 

“I wanted to keep broadcasting…we’re counting. We’re not going to stop counting. Nothing short of a court order is going to stop us from counting eligible votes cast by registered voters. Period.”

Al Schmidt, Philadelphia City Commissioner

Screenshot of a tweet from Philadelphia Election Commissioner Al Schmidt that reads "Philadelphia will NOT stop counting ALL legitimate votes cast by eligible voters. And we will report and report and report until the last vote is counted."

On Saturday, November 7, 2020, Philadelphia had finally counted enough votes to allow some media outlets to call the state–for Joe Biden. But the city’s woes were not over, and the mis- and disinformation campaigns only got worse. At their height, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar found herself responding to allegations that were clearly provable lies. 

“They were using numbers from the wrong election.”

Kathy Boockvar, Former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Reflecting on her experience, Secretary Boockvar expressed a sentiment that we heard amongst many of the officials we spoke with: that, for the President and his surrogates, the truth not only did not seem to matter, but that they knew that what they were saying was blatantly false. 

"The truth just didn’t matter anymore. They just had gotten to a point where they were going to say anything that served their narrative." 

Kathy Boockvar, Former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

It was not just large cities in the national spotlight that were targeted. In Rochester Hills, MI, a mid-sized city of 74,000 people, former City Clerk Tina Barton found herself at the center of a misinformation campaign. After a tabulation error on a voting machine was identified, Clerk Barton faced accusations of vote manipulation. 

"We literally put our lives on the line.”

Tina Barton, Senior Program Advisor at the US Election Assistance Commission

In response, she and her team created a video addressing the accusations. 

“Within like 24 hours we had 1.2 million views of my video.”

Tina Barton, Senior Program Advisor at the US Election Assistance Commission

Attacks on the integrity of the election — and on election officials — intensified even more in the days following the announcement of Biden’s win. State and local officials like Commissioner Schmidt, Secretary Boockvar, and Clerk Barton were working hard to dispel harmful narratives and lies, but it became clear that a more unified voice on the national level would need to weigh in. On November 12, 2020, the GCC and SCC executive committees, those alphabet soup organizations that had banded together to protect the election security community following 2016, released a joint statement from election community leaders across the country defending the security of the election. 

“It was a feeding frenzy out there…a lot of misinformation, disinformation”

David Stafford, Escambia County Supervisor of Election

And what they said was clear: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” 

 

The following week, Chris Krebs, then the Director of CISA, expressed the same sentiment on Twitter.

 

Chris Krebs photo of twitter tweet with the joint statement assuring voters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

In response, President Trump, who had yet to concede the election, fired him. 

 

Trump tweet erroneously claiming the election was not secure

“Somebody texted me and said, ‘you just got fired on Twitter’... I was not shocked. I was a little surprised.”

Chris Krebs, former Director of CISA