It is possible that watching hours of inconclusive election results deep into the night has poisoned your brain. It happens! Fortunately, that same vote-tallying vortex also offers an antidote: the gentle zen of the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ ballot-counting livestream.
Yes, things are stressful right now, especially as President Donald Trump embraces a scorched-earth path to keeping his office. (All the more surprising given that he still has a chance of winning legitimately, without lies and spurious lawsuits.) But no matter your political preference, you should be able to find some comfort in this live view of Philly’s election workers moving ballots through the system. And get comfortable: As of 4 am East Coast time on Wednesday, the state had at least 1.4 million ballots still to be counted, with hundreds of thousands of those in Philadelphia alone. As long as they were postmarked by November 3, incoming ballots can continue to be processed through Friday.
For all the conspiratorial talk about rigged elections—there’s no evidence of that, and it would be easy to spot if there were—there’s something reassuring about watching the process unfold. There’s no grifting here, no ballots materializing out of thin air or being dumped into a river. There’s no comment section, no sound. There’s just the plodding, methodical machinations of democracy at work.
In fact, closer observation reveals almost every step of how a ballot becomes a vote, although an apparent shift system means that not every gear is turning at the same time.
Start in the very back of the room, the tables by the circuit breakers. See those workers lifting papers up to the light? They’re likely looking for signatures, says Mark Lindeman, codirector of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Verified Voting, which focuses on electoral integrity. Mail voters in Pennsylvania are required to sign an outer envelope; election workers only confirm that it's there, not that the signature matches. That outer envelope is then opened by one of Philadelphia’s 22 high-speed extractors, which together can denude 12,000 envelopes an hour. (We don’t have a view of that, unfortunately.)
What remains is a privacy envelope, which contains the ballot itself. One more extraction to get rid of that, and the ballot goes on to get sorted based on which of Philadelphia’s 600 or so “divisions” it comes from. You can see some of this process around the center of the video frame, ballots spitting out in a staccato tempo, then sent on to the appropriate yellow bin.
From there? Election workers take actual ballots and prep them to run through a high-speed scanner. Philly has a dozen of those. “We’re seeing ballots being unfolded and in many cases manually backfolded to increase the chances that it makes it through,” Lindeman says. And then, in the foreground, are the scanners—one of them, anyway—which zip each ballot through, recording the vote on a USB stick along the way, according to Philadelphia-based public radio station WHYY. The ballots themselves are packed into boxes. Repeat, repeat, repeat, a few hundred thousand more times, until every single one is counted.
In most states, this canvassing process is open to the public by law. While the pandemic makes it impractical currently, you could one day check out your own district's methods, depending on where you live. For now, a livestream will do. Enjoy it for the mantra-like repetitive motion, sure. But also for the potential it has to make conspiracy theories wilt under the bright lights of rote bureaucracy.
“My own intuition is that if more citizens saw the steps that went into the process, and understood that there are people watching those steps, I think seeing that really helps to reduce the fear factor,” says Lindeman. Something has to in the calamitous week ahead. Let it be this.
CORRECTION 11/5/20 3:10 PM EST: This story has been updated to reflect that Pennsylvania voters sign the outer envelope, not the inner privacy envelope, of their mail-in ballots.