"It is not cheating, it is democracy": A first-hand look at ballot counting in Pennsylvania

In Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy, election officials carry out their duties while facing unfounded attacks on the integrity of the vote by a sitting president. Bill Whitaker reports.

Counting the ballots in Pennsylvania
Counting the ballots in Pennsylvania 13:23

The 2020 presidential election had a record-setting turnout with more than 145 million ballots cast. While President-elect Joe Biden collected more of those votes, and news organizations have projected him as the winner, President Trump has refused to concede. He has called for recounts and filed lawsuits questioning the validity of many of those ballots, mostly, the ones cast by mail all over the country.

As COVID spiked again, vote-by-mail ballots flooded tabulation centers. Other ballots jammed street-side drop boxes or were hand-delivered to registrars and city clerks.

What could have been chaos instead became an exercise in democracy.

We saw that first-hand, in five separate counties across the swing state of Pennsylvania with its crucial 20 electoral votes. There, we had some questions for the people responsible for counting the vote.

Bill Whitaker: President Trump has said, "Bad things happen in Philadelphia." Are bad things happening in Philadelphia?

Al Schmidt: In the birthplace of our Republic, counting votes is not a bad thing. Counting votes cast on or before Election Day by eligible voters is not corruption. It is not cheating. It is democracy.

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  Al Schmidt

Al Schmidt is one of three commissioners who run elections in Philadelphia and the lone Republican. 

Al Schmidt: There really should not be a disagreement, regardless of party affiliation, when we're talking about counting votes cast on or before Election Day by eligible voters. It's not a very controversial thing, or at least it shouldn't be.

 Bill Whitaker: But yet, it is.

 Al Schmidt: Unfortunately, yes.

We first met Commissioner Schmidt back in September. With the country in the grip of the pandemic, Schmidt was expecting a flood of mail-in ballots.

Al Schmidt: When you have half of your voters vote by mail..

And urging patience.

Al Schmidt: …you will not know the outcome on election night.

He couldn't have been more right. The flood became a deluge, 360,000 mail-in ballots poured in in Philadelphia. That was more than all the mail-in votes in the state in 2016. More than 90% were from Democrats. As those ballots were counted in the convention center in Philadelphia this past week, President Trump's initial lead in Pennsylvania slowly was chipped away. On Wednesday, with hundreds of thousands of votes still to count, President Trump tweeted that he had won the state. His campaign and party started filing lawsuits claiming voting irregularities and fraud, especially in Philadelphia.

Eric Trump at press conference: We are going to file suit in Pennsylvania.

The president's son, Eric, and Rudy Giuliani, rushed to Philadelphia to assert with great urgency, but no evidence, that democracy itself was under attack. 

Eric Trump at press conference: This is absolute fraud. We've seen it in Philadelphia before. 

By the end of the week, with former Vice President Joe Biden inching ahead in the vote count, the number of Trump campaign and GOP lawsuits hit double digits in Pennsylvania, most aimed at disrupting the count.

Pennsylvania is living up to its reputation as a crucial battleground in presidential elections. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by less than 1% of the vote. 

With a similar edge over President Trump, news organizations on Saturday projected former Vice President Joe Biden had won Pennsylvania and the presidency. Spontaneous celebrations broke out in Philadelphia and across the country.  

Still the Trump campaign is going to court to challenge the validity of the vote in Pennsylvania and other battleground states. 

Rudy Giuliani at press conference: Obviously he's not gonna concede. 

The president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, said he'll start filing lawsuits Monday.

Rudy Giuliani at press conference: I don't know if there's enough evidence to set aside the entire election. Certainly not around the country, maybe in Pennsylvania. 

The stakes are high, and passions were high all week. 

Thursday, two Virginia men, found with weapons and ammunition in their car, but no gun permit, were arrested outside the convention center. Inside, Republican Commissioner Schmidt, his fellow election board members and about 200 city employees are continuing to work. They'll be counting provisional ballots for at least another week.

 Al Schmidt: From the inside looking out, it feels all very deranged. 

 Bill Whitaker: Deranged? 

Al Schmidt: At the end of the day, we are counting eligible votes cast by voters. The controversy surrounding it is something I don't understand. It's people making accusations that we wouldn't count those votes or people are adding fraudulent votes or just, coming up with, just, all sorts of crazy stuff.

 Bill Whitaker: Accusations like, "You are cheating."

 Al Schmidt: Yes.

 Bill Whitaker: "You are manipulating the vote."

Al Schmidt: Yes. Or calls to our offices reminding us that "This is what the Second Amendment is for, people like us."

Bill Whitaker: You're getting calls like that?

Al Schmidt: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: That's it that's-- a not so veiled death threat.

Al Schmidt: Yes, for counting votes in a democracy.

The election here had been running smoothly.  

60 Minutes dropped in on five pivotal counties. Northampton in the northeast voted twice for Barack Obama, then flipped to Donald Trump in 2016. We saw long lines of voters there waiting patiently to cast ballots on Election Day. In neighboring Luzerne County, we saw orderly vote counting under the watchful gaze of party poll watchers certified by the state. It was the same in the affluent suburbs around Philadelphia.

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Pat Poprick

Pat Poprick, chair of the Bucks County GOP, is a proud partisan, but when it comes to running clean elections, she told us she's bipartisan. 

Pat Poprik: We may like different candidates, but we want the process to be fair. And I think we're working very hard in our county, and I'm very, very proud of our commissioners, our board. We're all working together to make sure the voters can vote.

Bill Whitaker: Democrats and Republicans.

Pat Poprik: Absolutely.

But that spirit of cooperation only goes so far. The number of Republican court cases keeps growing. One of the fiercest concerns poll watchers. The Trump campaign is in Pennsylvania courts alleging their observers can't get close enough to see what's going on. President Trump railed about that in his speech Thursday night. 

President Trump in speech:  In Philadelphia, observers have been kept far away, very far away - so far that people are using binoculars to try and see, and there's been tremendous problems caused.

Josh Shapiro: It is reckless and disappointing that there are some on the outside who either don't know what's going on or don't care to know what's going on, who are lying about what's happening here in Pennsylvania.

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  Josh Shapiro

Democrat Josh Shapiro is Pennsylvania's attorney general. He won reelection this past week.  He's defending the state against republican lawsuits he calls frivolous.

Josh Shapiro: They were asking for two things Bill.  Number one, to stop the count and number two, to allow their watchers to get closer to where the envelopes were being opened and scanned.  On the first issue, being able to stop the count, they failed.  And on the second thing - an agreement was reached to move these poll watchers from roughly 10 feet away to roughly six feet away.  No material change whatsoever.  

Bill Whitaker: The president and his campaign have said there are many irregularities here in Pennsylvania. 

Josh Shapiro: Let me break it down for you. Each campaign had observers in the room while the ballots were being counted. In addition to that, even if you're not a certified watcher, you can turn on the Iivestream and watch it on TV and keep an eye on the activity if you'd like.

Bill Whitaker: You heard the president's speech Thursday night. He was claiming that the election was being stolen from him.

Josh Shapiro: Donald Trump can say whatever he wants.  But we just had an election, an election that was secure, an election where the votes were tallied.  And a proper winner will be certified, based not on the words of President Trump, but the votes of the American people.  

Pennsylvania State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta spent election day urging voters to get to the polls. The Democrat represents a predominantly black district in North Philadelphia. 

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  Malcolm Kenyatta

Malcolm Kenyatta: I think about the people who died, I mean, literally, died and bled so every single person could vote in this country.

He says the Trump campaign's attempts to stop the count smacks of voter suppression.  

Malcolm Kenyatta: They're trying to steal an election by not having every vote count. And in an election, if you think you're gonna win, you don't try to stop the counting, you want every vote counted.  We're gonna count every single vote. And all they can do is what they've done to try to throw sand in the gears, to try to make the process as slow as possible, and then fill that time of delay with conspiracy theories and-- and-- and nonsense. 

Bill Whitaker: What do you think of this now that the Trump campaign is going to court complaining about these delays?

Malcolm Kenyatta: This is what the president does. He wants to create confusion and chaos and then say, "Oh my God, there's so much confusion and chaos." And then I say, "Well, pick up a mirror. Of course, there's confusion and chaos. You created it."

Ben Ginsberg: I've been doing this a long time. This is the type of litigation strategy where you throw the kitchen sink at the wall and see what sticks.

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  Ben Ginsberg

Ben Ginsberg is a Republican attorney who has spent almost four decades immersed in election law. 

During the Florida recount in 2000, he helped spearhead the controversial legal strategy that won the presidency for George W. Bush. He says this is no Florida 2000 and calls President Trump's strategy incoherent.

Bill Whitaker: What is this litigation designed to do then?

Ben Ginsberg: On the one hand, it's lawyers reacting to a client who is disjointed and unhinged and not-- terribly accepting of defeat. And on the other extreme-- this could be an instance of trying to slow down counts in individual states in the hopes that those states don't complete-- their job of certifying election results in time for the electoral college to meet. And then he would go back to something else he's talked about which is telling legislators to go and vote-- Trump slates even in states that were won by Biden.

Ginsberg, a lifelong Republican, hopes it doesn't come to that.  

Bill Whitaker: If you could get the ear of the president, what-- what would you say to him?

Ben Ginsberg: Sir, you need to take a step back, look at the results. It is a democracy. It is a country that's been very good to you. And you need to respect the institutions and the greatest institution of all is our elections that lead to the peaceful transfer of power. And you cannot be destructive of that.

Saturday night, now President-elect Joe Biden told voters the Democratic process is working.

Joe Biden during speech: We've won with the most votes ever cast for a presidential ticket in the history of this nation, 74 million.

Not far from Independence Hall, the counting of provisional, mail-in and military ballots continues. For Republican Election Commissioner Al Schmidt, each ballot is a precious reminder of what's at stake.  

Al Schmidt: The real damage is not who wins and who loses or who gets elected or not. The real damage, I think, is how  we all react to this process-- so that at the end of the day, we all have confidence that all the voices are heard and win or lose, these are the people that we the people have-- elected to represent us.

Produced by Marc Lieberman, Guy Campanile and Ali Rawaf. Associate producer, Lucy Hatcher. Broadcast associate, Emilio Almonte. Edited by Michael Mongulla.