The day before the election, I drove from my home in New Haven, Connecticut to Pennsylvania to serve as a volunteer observer of the mail-in ballot count for the Biden-Harris campaign. I blame the Electoral College. Two hundred and thirty-three years ago, the jury-rigged compromise of the American Electoral College modestly increased the power of smaller states and secured the consent of slave states to the Philadelphia Constitution of 1787. Now, that old compromise radically amplifies the power of a few swing states—and compels volunteers like me to travel to a state where the election will be competitive if we want our efforts to be useful. I am a law professor at Yale, but I have no special election law expertise. For volunteer purposes I was a citizen, and I wanted my civic efforts to matter.
Two days before the election, my organizer assigned me to Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, population 317,000. (A silver lining of teaching at a university during a pandemic is that I can work from just about anywhere with WiFi.) And so, on Tuesday morning of election day, after visiting with my parents in Philadelphia the night before, I drove up to the city of Wilkes-Barre for my first shift as what Pennsylvania calls a canvass observer.
What followed were two quietly revelatory days. To observe the count was to encounter the inexorable and simple logic of democracy. Democrats and Republicans sat together with civil servants and tabulated votes rationally and deliberately. Tensions, I would learn, had risen in the county in the months preceding the election. Perhaps that was to be expected given that anxieties ran high around the country about this most unusual election. Nonetheless, the count proceeded with care and attention. The count proceeded despite the unprecedented nature of the management challenge. And the count proceeded even though the vote counters in this Trump-leaning county undoubtedly disagreed with one another about what the outcome should be.
Luzerne is a mid-size county in northeast Pennsylvania, twenty miles west of Scranton. The county is eighty percent non-Hispanic white. As a boy I went fishing in the county’s state parks; I’ve kept fishing in the area to this day, mostly just to the south, in rivers renowned for their first-class trout fishing. But the region’s history is really about industry. The region’s geology boasts a distinctive kind of coal called anthracite, which is harder and burns cleaner than the more common bituminous coal. In 1808, a local political leader in Wilkes-Barre named Jesse Fell invented a fireplace grate that allowed for burning the hard coal in home fireplaces. Anthracite became the most prized form of home heating; it was indispensable in iron production, too, thanks to the high temperatures at which it burns.
The anthracite industry grew rapidly for more than a century and made Wilkes-Barre into a wealthy town at the heart of Pennsylvania coal country. The city’s downtown is organized around beautiful Beaux-Arts office buildings and banking edifices from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Spectacular mansions (now housing non-profits and two local colleges) line the east bank of the Susquehanna River. In the 1920s, however, anthracite began to give way to electricity and other forms of power, and the region’s economic lifeblood ebbed. At its peak in 1930, Wilkes-Barre was home to 86,000 people. Today it has just 41,000. The county’s population has fallen by a third.
Spectacular tragedy capped Luzerne’s industrial decline. In 1959, the anthracite mining works of the Knox Coal Company collapsed beneath the Susquehanna River, five miles upstream of Wilkes-Barre. The river rushed in. A massive whirlpool formed in the river as the river drained through its own bottom. More than 10 million gallons emptied into the mines while men tried to fill the sucking hole with coal, debris, and even railroad cars. Twelve men died in the mines that day. Nearly 10,000 lost their jobs in the weeks thereafter.
Today some surface strip-mining remains in Luzerne. But much of the coal seam remains under water, still inaccessible thanks to the flooding from the great Knox Mine Disaster. Underground mining will probably never resume.