Election Day 2019: New Machines, New Voters


In the hours before the polls opened on Tuesday, Nov. 7, numerous Pennsylvania news outlets were predicting low turnout, despite the fact that there were a number of key races to be decided.

buttons with vote on them
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In Philadelphia, it was a general election for mayor, all 17 City Council seats, county sherriff, register of wills, municipal and trial court judges, and all three seats on the city commisssion. There were also three ballot questions, though one of them — so-called Marsy’s Law, relentlessly hyped by Kelsey Grammar — could not be certified due to a court injunction that came down just prior to Election Day.

Elsewhere, there was a hot race for County Council in Delaware County, a battle for district attorney and sheriff positions in Chester County, board of commissioners races in Bucks and Montgomery counties, and state Assembly seats up for grabs in New Jersey.

There were also three ballot questions, and — perhaps most controversial of all in the off-year election — new voting machines, which replace devices that were last updated in the 1990s.

Below, some staff dispatches from various neighborhoods.

Graduate Hospital

Last year on Election Day, just past 7 a.m. when the polls opened, a line of more than about 100 people waited at Birchwood at Grays Ferry, formerly St. Anthony’s Senior Residences, to vote. The line wound through the building, into the courtyard and down Carpenter Street. This year, there was hardly a line at all.

But that’s fairly typical for an off-year election, said Jacob Tulsky, 32, a Jewish Democratic committeeperson from the 30th Ward. In a Democratic city like Philadelphia, the important election was earlier this year during the primary, he said. There’s also some interest in the new voting machines, which Tulsky said should, in theory, work better than the previous machines.

“It’s pretty early, but there’s been a trickle of people coming in,” Tulsky said.

As it got closer to 8 a.m., a short line began to form inside. Voters cast their ballots on the new machines, which allowed them to look at the actual paper ballot before it gets cast.

As they trickled out of the building, anti-gerrymandering advocates with Fair Districts PA signs were waiting to ask the exiting voters to sign a petition.

One of those voters was Rachel Semigran, who is Jewish and works in marketing and communications. She listed ending mass incarceration, holding police accountable, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and the environment among the issues she cares about.

“I vote in every election,” she said. “Local elections matter. They’re really important.”

Center City

It was a slow but steady trickle of people at the voting station inside William Penn House on Chestnut Street between 19th and 20th. Occasional clapping and cheering could be heard from volunteers as voters exited the booths around 8 a.m. Outside, a man was handing out flyers for City Councilman Allan Domb.

There was no line in the apartment building, so people entered and exited with ease. Volunteering as judge of elections at the site was Susan Levin, who is Jewish. Her Election Day started at 6 a.m. and she expected to wrap things up around 8:30 p.m. A volunteer since 2016, she said it’s both a sense of civic duty and convenience that drives her to lend a hand.

Levin estimates about half to two-thirds of the building’s nearly 600 residents are Jewish, with close to 80% coming out to vote. As of 8:25 a.m. they had 48 people stop by. As only building residents use the polling station, Levin said they have a “captive audience” and that “people have no reason not to vote here.” One of those coming out to vote was Rodney Meyers, 83. He said there were no particular issues that drove him to the booth.

“Just an obligation to vote,” Meyers said. “The people have to be the ones who elect who govern us.”

Levin said she knew of some people this year casting absentee ballots as they were uncomfortable with the new machines. But Levin noticed those who were nervous got the hang of it. Meyers said he didn’t have any trouble, but wished the ticket review at the end was displayed on the center of the screen as opposed to the right side, making it easier to read.

Mt. Airy

At the Germantown Home on W. Sedgwick Street in Mt. Airy, things were quiet just after polls opened — unlike Election Day in 2016 and last year’s midterms, when a line to get in snaked alongside the entrance to the building well before 7 a.m.

Things started to pick up as the morning went on, though, with a small but steady stream of voters. A half-hour into the day, roughly 25 people had voted.

There was extra input and explanation from the poll workers this time around to explain how the new voting machines worked — or didn’t work, as the case may be; one of the three machines was not functional when the polling station opened, and another started emitting a puzzling beeping sound while someone was trying to vote 20 minutes later.

“Is that someone’s cell phone?” asked a poll worker apparently unfamiliar with the machine’s noises.

Two poll workers joined a voter inside the curtains of the beeping machine to try to figure out what was wrong. It took a few minutes, but they got the machine back online.

University City

Most Penn undergraduates vote in the oak-paneled Class of 1966 Reading Room inside Houston Hall, Penn’s Student Union. It’s as nice a place as any to do one’s civic duty. A giant bell, which once rang in the clock tower above Penn’s College Hall, sits here in repose, looking close enough to the Liberty Bell to almost inspire a sense of efficacy in our democratic process.

Between 9 and 10:20 a.m., a slow stream of students came in to vote. There were no lines, and there was little waiting, though only two were allowed to go to the booths at a time despite the presence of three voting booths. Traffic did, however, begin to pick up, around 10:30 a.m.

Tory Berke, a recent Jewish grad of Bryn Mawr College, was on Penn’s campus to recruit for City Year. She was not voting in Pennsylvania because she had already voted in New Hampshire, where she is from. Why vote there instead of here? The New Hampshire separatists. They call themselves The Porcupine Society of Free Staters.

“There’s a whole anarchist party that’s constantly trying to take over the state and then literally leave the nation to start their own country,” said Berke. “So it’s pretty important to me and to a lot of other people to maintain our voting status in New Hampshire so we can prevent a lot of those people from taking over.”

Sam Roth, a Penn senior, and Henry Nicholson, a Penn freshman, had more conventional reasons for voting.

Said Roth, “Generally, I feel it’s my civic duty to vote — as an American, as a Jewish American, to represent myself and my beliefs. I figure it’s something I should make time out of my day to do. So each Election Day, I make sure to come down here and vote.”

For Nicholson, the day represented a milestone: “It’s my first time, so I wanted to do it. Even though it’s not the president or anything, I wanted to do it because I feel like it’s my responsibility.”


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