It took Donald Trump to persuade Almedia Gilliam to finally vote.

Ms Gilliam, a 72-year-old black woman from south Philadelphia, had never done so before. But her enmity for the US president, who she suspects is a Ku Klux Klan sympathiser, is such that she is planning to cast her first ballot next month — and not by mail but in person.

“I’ve got the gloves but I need the mask,” Ms Gilliam, who has health problems, said of the precautions she will take to try to minimise the risk of contracting coronavirus at a crowded polling station.

As a Covid-19 diagnosed Mr Trump seeks to revive his campaign with less than a month before election day, his chances of a second term may hinge on his campaign’s ability to prevent Ms Gilliam and other Philadelphians from casting their ballots.

Strategists agree that most plausible paths to victory for Mr Trump require him to again capture Pennsylvania, a swing state he won in 2016 by a mere 44,000 votes. That will mean turning out his base in rural parts of the state but also overcoming piles of votes in Philadelphia, the state’s most populous city and a Democratic bastion.

Priscilla Bennett, left, was the first person in Philadelphia to cast an early ballot © Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters
People wait in line outside City Hall in Philadelphia to vote early in the 2020 US election © Gabrielle Audi/AFP/Getty

“The problem is if Philly has good turnout, that will bury him,” said Robin Kolodny, chair of the political science department at Temple University in Philadelphia.

To prevent that the Trump campaign has filed lawsuits to prohibit the use of drop boxes and otherwise restrict the use of mail voting, which Democrats are expected to do in higher numbers than Republicans.

The president has also sought to discredit the City of Brotherly Love as a “horror show” of election fraud whose ballots should not be trusted. 

“Bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things,” Mr Trump declared during last week’s first presidential debate, claiming — without evidence — that Democrats were planning to steal the election for their nominee Joe Biden by manipulating mail ballots.

The president has urged his supporters to enter polling places to check for fraud, provoking tense showdowns at some election offices during the first days of early voting and prompting Philadelphia’s mayor to draw up security plans.

While Mr Trump’s fraud claims may be hollow, even his foes acknowledge that it will be challenging for Philadelphia to deal with an unprecedented flood of mail ballots. In the June primaries, which served as a dry run, 14,600 of them arrived after the deadline and the US postal service struggled.

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There will be even more mail ballots to cope with in the general election, and by state law, the city cannot begin to process them until election day. That means it could be several days before a result is determined in Pennsylvania, with lawyers from both parties jostling for advantage.

“Come on! We invented the constitution. We wrote the Declaration of Independence. We kind of know what we’re doing. We should be able to pull this off,” said Kerry Sautner, a scholar at the National Constitution Center who also leads the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.

As Ms Sautner spoke, the state’s new online voter registration system, which is supposed to allow citizens to both request and track their ballots, had frozen. “That’s not awesome,” she quipped.

Still, Ms Sautner believed civic leaders were rising to the challenge. Hundreds of fresh volunteers have stepped forward after worries cropped up that the pandemic would cause a shortage of poll workers.

Others shrugged at the threat of rightwing mobs inundating the polls. “Bring ’em on!” said Anton Moore, the Democratic leader of the 48th ward, where Ms Gilliam lives. “We’ll have some unfriendly people waiting for them.”

Mr Moore, 34, is a consummate neighbourhood politician. As he made the rounds on a recent afternoon, the personal and professional were intertwined. Greetings flew at him from open doors, stoops and passing cars. Mr Moore, in turn, told one resident about a food kitchen, and promised to help another with a trash collection issue. “You have to have your finger on the pulse, you know what I mean?” he said. In all encounters Mr Moore reminded his neighbours to vote.

That was not so easy in June, during the primaries, when Covid prompted the closure of polling stations across Philadelphia and turnout in the 48th ward was just 32 per cent. “It was rough,” Mr Moore recalled.

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Anton Moore, Democratic leader of Philadelphia’s 48th ward, on the threat of rightwing mobs: ‘Bring ’em on! We’ll have some unfriendly people waiting for them’

This time the challenge is educating citizens about how to vote by mail since any of a series of clerical mis-steps — an unclear signature, for example, or failing to enclose a ballot in a second “secrecy” envelope — could lead to its disqualification.

Older voters, according to Mr Moore, are particularly distrustful of mail ballots. “They ask questions like: is Donald Trump behind this? Is this a conspiracy to set us up?” he said.

Voter fraud is not unheard of in Philadelphia. In March a former judge, Domenick DeMuro, admitted that he had inflated vote counts in 2014 and 2016 for certain Democratic candidates in exchange for bribes.

In the city’s worst voter fraud case, a federal judge ended up overturning a 1993 state senate election that would have tipped the balance of the Pennsylvania legislature after concluding that Democrats had forged hundreds of absentee ballots that were improperly obtained.

Those cases are not so relevant today, according to Prof Kolodny and other election experts. Pennsylvania has updated its voting machines since the DeMuro scam, creating a paper trail that can be easily followed. Absentee ballots, once counted in local wards, are now processed at the county level.

Line charts showing poll averages for Biden and Trump in Pennsylvania

Lorraine Minnite, a professor at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, and author of The Myth of Voter Fraud, called the DeMuro case a “particularly boneheaded” conspiracy, adding: “It’s important to not generalise about the frequency of fraudulent conspiracies like this from one egregious case.”

Some Republicans complained of fraud after Republican Mitt Romney failed to win a single vote in dozens of Philadelphia wards when he challenged Barack Obama in 2012.

Yet Philadelphia’s registered voters are 87 per cent Democratic. Walking through neighbourhoods in north Philadelphia that are heavily black — and poor — it is easy to see how candidate Romney, a Mormon private equity executive, might fall flat. 

Donnell Drinks: ‘The pandemic has created a sense of urgency about [voting]. You can’t go two or three steps without finding someone who’s been affected by it’

The larger question by the food bank at 22nd and Berks Streets, according to Donnell Drinks, is not which candidate voters favour but whether they will cast a ballot at all.

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“We’re frustrated every four years in these communities,” said Mr Drinks, as he wandered past rows of decaying apartments interrupted by green plots where condemned buildings once stood. Some were tidy; others were strewn with trash. A police van raced past, sirens waling. “People look at it as: do we really have a choice? Neither candidate is going to do shit for me.”

Not so Mr Drinks. He was jailed for murder at age 17, and spent 27 years behind bars — some of them on death row until a Supreme Court decision altered his sentence. In prison he became consumed with politics. “You start paying attention to Supreme Court justices because it affects you,” he explained.

Since his release two years ago he has gone to work for the American Civil Liberties Union trying to persuade his neighbours of the importance of voting. For safety reasons he has been forced to conduct much of his outreach online. Like everyone else, he worries about the logistical hurdles posed by a sudden switch to large-scale mail ballots.

Still, Mr Drinks is convinced the president and the pandemic will provide plenty of motivation for Philadelphians, regardless. “The pandemic has created a sense of urgency about it,” he said. “You can’t go two or three steps without finding someone who’s been affected by it.”

Warren Green, a truck driver who was unloading cargo at the food bank, agreed. “This is all a strategy to try to get Trump back in,” Mr Green, 71, said of the president’s complaints about voter fraud in Philadelphia.

He had once harboured hopes that Mr Trump might try to unify the nation — but no longer. Mr Green and his wife had already requested their mail ballots, he said, adding: “I’m voting out of respect for people who gave their lives so I have the right.”

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