A Bumpy Night in Berks County, Pennsylvania


D.D. Guttenplan, The Nation


READING, PA.—If it all comes down to Pennsylvania—and at this point in the night, with Florida and Georgia looking doubtful, and dreams of a big blue wave fading fast, it looks like it might—let the record show that if Joe Biden wins here, he was carried to victory on the backs of the Latinx and immigrant activists in Make the Road, the young Green New Deal enthusiasts in the Sunrise Movement, and the self-organized collection of mostly Bernie Sanders alums who provide the muscle behind Pennsylvania Stands Up. When the polls opened at the Santander Arena here in downtown Reading—the largest polling place in Pennsylvania’s fifth-largest city—at 7 this morning there were about 80 people in line, and a half dozen volunteers to welcome them, hand out palm cards, and make sure everyone legally entitled to vote had the chance to actually do so. And when the polls finally closed in the 19th Ward, where some voters had to wait in line more than four hours, the volunteers were still there, providing food, water, hand warmers, and even live music to make sure nobody left the line.

“You voting, Papi?” shouted Julio Martinez, a volunteer with the Berks County Democratic Party. Trump won this county by 18,000 votes in 2016—about the same margin as Barack Obama’s victory here in 2008. As anyone who’s ever played Monopoly knows, they used to have a railroad here, a busy line carrying anthracite from the western Pennsylvania coalfields to the port of Philadelphia. In 1871, the Reading Railroad was the largest company in the world. At the turn of the 20th century, the Berkshire Mills was the largest knitting mill in the world. The city of Reading grew in every census until 1930.

But the city’s decline was swift and relentless. The former mill buildings became factory outlet stores, until that business also dried up. By 2011 The New York Times named Reading the “poorest city in the country,” with over 41 percent of the population living in poverty. And for Nancy Jimenez, the statistics only tell part of the story.

“When I came to this country from the Dominican Republic, we first lived in New York. After our house in Rockland County burnt down, we moved to the Bronx. But after a few months, I realized the Bronx was not for me. I had a cousin here—this was 18 years ago—and he said you could live here. At the time, you never saw a bodega–or if you did, it was because it was the only one.”

Today, Reading is a majority Latinx city, with 64 percent of the population identifying as Hispanic. The mayor, Eddie Moran, was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Brooklyn. I ran into him outside the polls at Christ Lutheran Church, where Carmen Rodriguez told me she’d been waiting in line for nearly two hours already, but was prepared to wait as long as it took to cast her vote. “I want Trump to win,” she told me. “I’m a Christian, and so when I vote I look for a candidate with Christian values.” Earlier in the day Jonathan Tinoco, who was driving voters to the polls for the Hispanic Center of Reading, said that while most Latinx voters favored the Democrats, there was a sizable contingent of evangelicals who would almost certainly vote Republican. As if on cue, a family approached the polls wearing matching sweatshirts all proclaiming “CHRIST is my Savior. DONALD TRUMP is my President.”

Trump, who has a knack for turning up in the places the Democratic National Committee has long forgotten, held a rally at the Reading airport on Saturday. Joe Biden, though—as he never tires of reminding us—a Scranton native, visited the state 17 times in this campaign, but has never come here. “Trump’s visit probably got him some votes,” said Tinoco, “but not as many as his signature on those stimulus checks.”

As the line at the church kept getting longer, I made my way inside and asked Rose Althouse, the judge of elections, what was causing the holdup. “The Spanish people and all their names,” she replied. Apparently, neither of the election officials assigned to the precinct spoke Spanish—so when voters were asked to identify themselves, and then to spell their names, delays ensued. And then compounded.

Volunteers from Make the Road tried to intervene, and were eventually allowed to ask voters to print their names on sheets of paper to hand over to officials when they finally reached the front of the line. But with elections the responsibility of Berks County—still majority-white—not even the mayor’s personal intervention was able to speed things up.

The mayor himself remained resolutely cheerful. And during the two and a half hours I spent at this location, I didn’t see a single voter give up and go home.

How much will any of the votes cast in Reading, or elsewhere in Berks County, matter? We may not know the answer to that for several days. Right now, the networks keep repeating that Pennsylvania is “still too close to call.” Or in the words of that renowned psephologist Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

D.D. Guttenplan is editor of The Nation. He previously covered the 2016 election as the magazine’s editor at large and, for two decades before that, was part of its London bureau. His most recent book, The Next Republic: The Rise of a New Radical Majority (Seven Stories Press), has just come out in paperback. TWITTER