Fels Event Explored Conducting Elections in Challenging Times

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This December, the Fels Institute of Government hosted the “Fels and the 2020 Election: Conducting Elections Amidst a Pandemic” event. An expert panel discussed the unprecedented challenges faced by election officials around the country due to both the global pandemic and misinformation cast on the legitimacy and security of mail-in ballots.

“We wanted to hold this event to showcase some of the ways that Fels faculty and alumni were involved in the landmark 2020 election,” says Matt Levendusky, Penny and Robert A. Fox Director of the Fels Institute of Government and Decision Desk Analyst at NBC News, who acted as moderator. “This was a way to highlight not only the role these individuals played, but also to suggest ways forward in terms of lessons learned. For example, given Act 77 [which expanded the mail-in balloting option], as well as the pandemic, Pennsylvania saw an enormous increase in mail-in voting, which posed a set of logistical challenges for county elections officials.”

In addition to Levendusky, featured panelists included Seth Bluestein, Chief Deputy Commissioner and Chief Integrity Officer, Office of the City Commissioners, City of Philadelphia; John Lapinski, Robert A. Fox Professor of Political Science and the Director of Elections at NBC News; and Michael DiBerardinis, Fels Professor of Practice.

Bluestein, a Fels alumnus, led off with a discussion of the city’s preparation process. One of the practical lessons learned from the primary, Bluestein said, was what kind of space would afford officials the security to conduct election operations, especially with the exponential increase in mail-in ballots. “In the primary election we operated out of our normal voter registration office. Having the convention center space allowed for more efficient processes and better physical security for the ballots.”

DiBerardinis also became actively involved in the election process after speaking with colleagues from his time in the governor’s office during Ed Rendell’s tenure. Working alongside city and state officials, the Commissioners’ office, and the school district—what DiBerardinis describes as a four-party alliance—he helped with organization efforts and resource coordination. “We were very successful for a first-time run working together, and really gave people easy access to early voting,” he said. “It was really a question of: ‘What are the issues this week? Who in these four parties needs to be involved? What are the resources and how do we get it done?’”

Lapinski discussed the intricacies of planning for election night. “We felt the threshold needed to be even higher this time around, because if we got even one wrong, it would call into question the entire integrity of the process,” he said. Levendusky, who worked alongside Lapinski at the NBC Decision Desk, added, “There's no such thing as one national election. There are 50 state elections and several thousand county elections.”

When it comes to the next election cycle, Lapinski said, “We are going to need to be prepared to think about the electorate in different ways. Some of the institutional change that has happened, and people voting early, I think we're going to see a lot of that stick with us.”

The panelists also fielded questions on topics ranging from accommodating voters without permanent addresses to misinformation campaigns.

“Hopefully, 2020 helped to lay the groundwork for legislation and better procedures to help ensure smooth and well-functioning elections in 2022, 2024, and beyond,” says Levendusky.

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