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Philadelphia Prepares For A Potentially Rocky Election Night

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

With its 20 electoral votes, Pennsylvania is a big catch in any presidential election. It narrowly went to Donald Trump four years ago. This year, strong turnout in Democratic strongholds of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia could deliver the state to Joe Biden. And that's got President Trump fixated on Philly, where he won only 15% of the votes in 2016. He's claimed, with scant evidence, that the local election system is corrupt. NPR's Jeff Brady has more.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: President Trump spends a lot of time talking about Philadelphia these days.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're watching you. A lot of bad things happen there with the counting of the votes.

BRADY: At an Allentown rally this week, Trump again called into question the integrity of Philadelphia's election system. And there have been issues, including technical hiccups. On the first day of early in-person voting, a laptop used to program voting machines was stolen. And then a WHYY reporter got inside a warehouse where voting machines are stored.

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MAX MARIN, BYLINE: I just walked in that door. I've been announcing my name, trying to see if anyone was here.

BRADY: Officials beefed up security after that.

This election is like no other in Philadelphia and all across Pennsylvania. A new state law makes it much easier to vote early and by mail. With the pandemic, people signed up in droves, especially Democrats. About a third of the state's 9 million voters plan to cast their ballot by mail. More than three-quarters of those already had by Friday. But under state law, counties can't even open those ballots to prepare them for counting until 7 a.m. on Election Day. That's one reason Philadelphia spent $5 million on new equipment.

LISA DEELEY: They're going to run this right now. And you'll get to see it. You'll get to see a demonstration.

BRADY: Lisa Deeley chairs the city commissioners' office, which runs elections. In Philadelphia's sprawling convention center, her office built a mail-in vote-counting factory. One machine sorts returned ballots in hours instead of days.

DEELEY: Historically, we had to do it all by hand with a scanner gun, individual people sitting at a desk beep-beeping (ph) every envelope in.

BRADY: Another machine cuts open envelopes and spreads them apart with suction cups so workers can quickly pull out the ballots. And then there are 12 high-speed scanners that process 32,000 ballots an hour. Deeley still won't predict when counting will be finished. The state expects most results will be tallied by Friday.

Meantime, President Trump continues to sow doubt about the veracity of voting in Philadelphia. His campaign videotaped people putting ballots in drop boxes. Election groups openly worry that armed Trump supporters may show up to intimidate voters. That prompted Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to issue this warning.

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LARRY KRASNER: Anyone who comes to the cradle of American democracy to try to suppress the vote and violates the law and commits crimes is going to find themselves in a jail cell talking to a Philadelphia jury.

BRADY: So far, no reports that's happening. At an early in-person voting office this week, Philadelphians seem to be taking all this in stride.

WAVERLY O'NEAL: I don't have any complaints other than the wait. But what are you going to do?

BRADY: Waverly O'Neal stood in a line of mask-wearing voters that stretched around the block. Zakaria Loudini waited several hours to vote.

ZAKARIA LOUDINI: A little bit earlier, they actually passed around boxes of pizza for people to take slices from, which is very cool.

BRADY: Considering Trump's focus on Philadelphia, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf says it looks like the president is trying to suppress turnout in this city. If that's true, it's not working. More than 90% of voters here have signed up for ballots, the highest in 35 years.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.