York County's new elections director prepares for increased scrutiny in November
York County elections director Julie Haertsch says she knew that this year's Nov. 8 election would be a whole different animal from the primary.
Now she's seeing that for herself.
"Every election has its own personality," she said. "Based on the ballots coming in, this is already going to be much bigger — and I knew that intellectually — but I'm seeing it unfold that we have a lot more processing and work to do. And I can feel the election breathing down my neck right now."
Elections across the country have seen increased scrutiny and skepticism, including repeated claims of election fraud without basis in fact. Haertsch said the only way to counter that is to maintain a high level of customer service and transparency.
"We try to help them see that, while we understand they might not be happy with the situation, we work with them to help them realize we are serving them and we are offering them good customer service," she said.
Haertsch said some people are committed to seeing fraud where it doesn't exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
"No matter what you tell them — over and over again — if their minds are closed there's nothing we can do to manage that," Haertsch said.
Earlier this year, a contingent of York County residents gathered signatures in an attempt to remove electronic voting machines from the county. Their effort ultimately failed to gather the nearly 9,000 signatures necessary to bring the proposal before voters.
At issue were unsubstantiated claims related to the county's Dominion Voting Systems machines.
"In this great county and Commonwealth, people can follow their passion," Haertsch said, when asked about the attempts to get a referendum on the ballot. "I respect their passion and commitment."
An earlier attempt to get a voting machine referendum on Jacobus Borough's ballot received enough signatures but was denied by the Board of Elections, which cited case law.
York County has been using Dominion machines exclusively since 2019. It currently has 180 Election Day machines that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as 245 other Election Day machines and six high-speed scanners. Several of the machines won't be deployed come Nov. 8 but instead will serve as backups.
Dominion voting machines have repeatedly been tested across the country in response to fraud allegations by 2020 election deniers. So far, those claims have never been substantiated.
In El Paso County, Colorado, for example, a test of the county’s equipment — required by law before a recount — found no issues, county officials and Dominion Voting Systems told The Associated Press.
Haertsch, hired earlier this year after former director Steve Ulrich left amid a flurry of recent controversies, says she's still learning the job. She previously served as a regulatory compliance officer at Peoples State Bank.
"I learned how to read a regulation," Haertsch said, "and with elections there are a lot of regulations attached."
She also pointed to her experience as a human resources specialist. She worked for 16 years at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission before retiring in 2017.
"I already knew how to team build and I've learned how to read and assess people," Haertsch said. "A big piece of my job is as a manager. It is identifying potential of your staff, and I think that's a blessing to them and that's a blessing to the work."
When she was hired, it was noted that Haertsch had not only run for office twice as a Republican but also had donated to Republican causes in the past, including to President County Commissioner Julie Wheeler.
Haertsch, asked about Republican ties, said everyone was entitled to their opinions but that she had always been respectful and that civility needs to prevail. She noted that, prior to taking the job, she did a lot of soul searching.
"It's very important that I am a representative of all the constituents," she said. "That was the philosophy I had when I was running. Stepping into this office, I asked myself the same question, and if I could not have come to the conclusion that I would be nonpartisan, I would not deserve to be in this job."
Being nonpartisan, Haertsch said, comes right along with the position.
"My job is to protect a vote where I can, and I don't care who you're voting for," she said. "That's my business. My business is making sure that vote is protected."
Haertsch received praise from one of the people who hired her.
"She's done an exemplary job, especially trying to take in all the information. There's so much to learn about elections," Commissioner Ron Smith said. "The elections department has come together as a very cohesive team, and they're starting to gel with her leadership moving forward. I think we got a pretty good team down here."
Moving forward, Haertsch said the county plans to explore more options for using technology during elections.
That includes the possibility of electronic poll — or epoll — books, a system in which the list of registered voters eligible to cast their ballots at various polling locations is maintained electronically. Haertsch stressed, however, that there are a lot of questions to be answered before that becomes a reality and it won't be considered for this November.
"This way, you have everything at your fingertips, the most current information available," Haertsch said. "It's faster for people who are waiting in line and it's faster once you get in there."
Other counties in Pennsylvania that use epoll books include Bucks, Berks and Washington counties.
Preparations are ramping up for the general election on Nov. 8. That includes more frequent meetings of the county's elections task force, made up of representatives from the commissioners' office, elections department, solicitor's office, emergency management, information services and prothonotary.
"My philosophy is if you've already planned everything ahead of time, then if some kind of disaster does strike, and it may, we can focus on cleaning that up before the election," Haertsch said.
The county has already processed 32,801 mail-in ballot applications and sent out 32,753 ballots to those voters.
Part of preparation is explaining things to those who call in, Haertsch said. The department will take time to explain the reasoning behind certain decisions: for example, why the elections department uses Sharpie pens. Other pens, she said, can gum up the works for the scanners.
It's important for the county to show that they have commitment to addressing potential security issues and being transparent, Chief Clerk Greg Monskie said.
Haertsch said that being in the job has been an incredible experience and that she appreciates the staff she works with.
"We always think there's room to make things better," she said, "and that's what we're striving for."
— Reach Matt Enright via email at email@example.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.