YOU SHOULD KNOW…Seth Bluestein

Seth Bluestein (Courtesy of Seth Bluestein)

On Jan. 2, Seth Bluestein was sworn in as Philadelphia’s City Commissioner, a position that sets and enforces policies for administering voter registration and conducting elections in accordance with various laws.

It will be Bluestein’s first full four-year term. The 34-year-old served as deputy commissioner and then chief deputy commissioner under Al Schmidt before stepping up to finish Schmidt’s term in February 2022.

The 2020 election didn’t break Bluestein.

As Philadelphia finished counting the votes that would decide Pennsylvania and the presidential election, the Jewish Republican stayed up from Tuesday through Friday to oversee the process. He faced death threats as the state’s count turned from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Philadelphia had to put police officers outside his Roxborough home to protect his wife, young daughter and newborn son.

Now it’s 2024, another presidential election year, and Bluestein wants to do it again.

“We were able to stand tall and make sure people had their ballots counted,” he said. “We were able to reach this point where the public finally had clarity and results.”

Bluestein grew up attending Adath Tikvah in Northeast Philadelphia. He credits Jewish preschool for ingraining in him the values of “standing up for our community and trying to improve the world around us.”

Bluestein earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history and then a master’s in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania. During his final year of school, Bluestein worked on Schmidt’s campaign for city commissioner.

He loved it.

“You get to talk to your fellow residents from across the city and make sure their voices are heard,” Bluestein said. “You get to make sure they participate in the democratic process.”

Schmidt won, and Bluestein earned a job in his office. While there, he realized that Philadelphians needed more access to election information.

So, Bluestein created “the first modern website for the department to get info out to the public,” he said. He started putting out more data on social media. He also helped the commissioner’s office upgrade to new voting machines and electronic poll books.

But 2020 presented a different challenge. In the fall of 2019, Pennsylvania passed Act 77, which allowed for no-excuse vote by mail for the first time. Then the pandemic broke out.

“We knew it would change voting behaviors for many people,” Bluestein said. “But because of the pandemic, it was a bigger change than anybody expected.”

Act 77 also did not allow Pennsylvania officials to open mail-in ballots until Election Day. The chief deputy commissioner and his colleagues tried to warn the public about that in advance. But it largely fell on deaf ears as the late counting of mail-in ballots shifted the momentum from Trump, who had cast doubt on voting by mail, to Biden, who hadn’t.

There were hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots to count, according to Bluestein. It took time.

“That gap in time allowed misinformation to spread,” he said. “That led to threats for not just us but election officials across the country.”

Bluestein was the main contact for campaigns, observers and staff members opening ballots. He was inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which had security from the Philadelphia Police Department. The commissioner felt safe.

“We needed to continue doing our job of counting people’s votes,” he said. “We needed to make sure votes were counted and counted accurately.”

But at one point, his name was mentioned in public by a member of the Trump campaign. Bluestein started receiving harassment, antisemitic harassment and threats to his phone and social media accounts. One mentioned “coming to my home,” he said.

“That’s the hardest part of this whole environment we’re in now is the impact it potentially has on our families,” Bluestein said. “Nobody should be receiving threats and harassment. But we’re choosing to do a job that has become contentious. But our families are not public officials.”

The commissioner did not receive threats after the election. But he did begin advocating for PA to change Act 77 to allow officials to count ballots before election day. Twenty-six other states now allow “pre-processing,” but Pennsylvania’s General Assembly has not moved on the issue.

“Nobody thought about this in the past with absentee ballots. There were so few, and the margin was wide enough that they wouldn’t change the result,” Bluestein said. “But because we’ve had hundreds of thousands of mail ballots and the last two elections have been close, they matter a lot now.”

Bluestein believes this year’s election will be “contentious.” But he also thinks this process will be less chaotic. Since there’s no pandemic, there should be more people who vote in person. He also said his office has updated its equipment and procedures to process ballots faster.

“I have great faith in the American people’s ability to see through these lies about the integrity of the election,” Bluestein said.

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