“It is very, very sad that we’re here in the city that’s really the birthplace of our democracy, and this is among one of the most antidemocratic things I’ve ever seen or encountered,” Giuliani said, and “not a single Republican has been able to look at any one of these mail ballots.” Bondi warned: “There is a gentleman here by the name of Seth Bluestein, who is an assistant to a city commissioner. And he is wearing a badge the size of a baseball, and as far as I know, he’s not a sworn law-enforcement officer. So it looks like intimidation to me, with a police barricade and a man wearing a huge badge around his neck.”
Trump’s, Giuliani’s and Bondi’s claims were misleading when not false. The “police barricade” that Bondi — who had not been in the canvassing room — described was in reality a line of bike racks, installed to create a socially distanced area from which the observers could watch, and the commissioners and their deputies had been issued badges by the city’s Office of Emergency Management to allow them free passage around the center. After Bondi called out Bluestein — who, like Schmidt, is a registered Republican — his Twitter and Facebook pages began lighting up with messages and threats. His cellphone number was leaked, and he received anonymous texts and voice mail messages.
Dozens of observers, Republican and Democrat, had been in the canvassing room since 7 a.m. on Election Day. The work never stopped. There was a bank of 22 “extractors,” machines that cut open the envelopes and extracted the ballots; two enormous “sorters,” each the size of a luggage conveyor in a regional airport, that separated the ballots according to city ward and polling place; a row of scanners, resembling old reel-to-reel tape recorders, that recorded the votes; and set among these, about 60 eight-foot-long folding tables, where hundreds of city employees and temporary workers reviewed the ballots. “We had deputy mayors sitting at extracting tables,” Lisa Deeley said.
Across from the observers was a press pen. And not only the observers and reporters but the world could watch: From a ceiling-mounted camera, a 24-hour livestream of the room was being fed onto the board’s website, as well as the sites of news networks and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The board was not required to announce the count until all the ballots were done, but they had been putting out regular releases. At 8:23 on election night, they announced the first batch of 75,755; the next morning, at 5:11, they announced another 65,768; at 10 a.m., another 44,963; and at 3:57 p.m., 47,097 more. Thursday brought another five releases. With each new release, Biden’s percentage of the mail-ins increased, and the margin narrowed.
As it did, Trump’s rhetoric grew shriller, and the crowds outside the convention center grew larger. The Sheriff’s Office assigned to the board’s staff members deputies who accompanied them when they went outside. At one point, as Schmidt was walking to City Hall, a man rushed at him on the street. He yelled “Commissioner Schmidt, why are you harassing our poll watchers?” The deputy stepped in front of the man and said: “How about I lock you up for harassment?”
Schmidt saw it was the same man who harassed him at the last board meeting. He realized the man was probably staking out the main entrance to the convention center, possibly from a Panera Bread across the street. It was also in front of this entrance that the protesters were gathering. So Schmidt took to sneaking in and out of the center via a back loading dock. It afforded him a clear path to the Dunkin’ Donuts, of whose all-day breakfast sandwich menu he had become a “connoisseur,” as Schmidt put it. The employees there recognized him and always tried to give him free food, which he declined; Philadelphia law prohibits city commissioners from receiving gifts.