Protect and Elect

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Illustration about voting by mail in ballot
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State is on a mission to make sure that every vote counts.


Photo of Kathy Boockvar

On the morning of June 2, Kathy Boockvar C’90 hoped for the best while preparing for the worst.

Since being appointed Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Commonwealth on January 5, 2019, she’d been tasked with upgrading the state’s voting machines to models that produce voter-verifiable paper records and implementing Act 77—an election reform bill, signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf last October, that allows anyone in the state to vote by mail without needing an excuse.

So there was already a “huge sea change,” Boockvar notes, heading into the Pennsylvania primary on June 2—even before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country (causing the election to be rescheduled from April) followed by the civil unrest that enveloped major cities the weekend prior. “Any one of those changes would be challenging,” Boockvar says. “To have all four converge in one election was extremely challenging.

“But,” the state’s chief elections official adds, “it was incredibly and remarkably smooth and safe.”

Because of the pandemic, nearly 1.5 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail in the primary—more than the roughly 1.2 million who voted in person (and way more than the 84,000 who voted by mail in the primary four years earlier). “Once COVID-19 hit, we knew things were going to change,” Boockvar says, noting that the state department worked closely with counties to ensure a smooth transition, and blitzed radio and TV stations with a bilingual public relations campaign about voting by mail. “We did every layer of communications we could possibly do to make sure voters knew about this option. And boy, did it work.”

A former voting rights attorney and poll worker, Boockvar claims that there were fewer negative incidents reported than in any presidential primary that she could recall in at least a decade, which she calls “incredible.” And it’s giving her hope for the general election on November 3, in which the state is preparing for more than 3 million mail-in ballots and the possibility that votes may still need to be counted for days after Election Day. At that point, the eyes of the nation could very well fall on one of the decisive swing states from the last presidential contest—and on Boockvar.

It’s not a position she ever thought she’d be in, particularly when she first arrived at college in the fall of 1986 intent on following the family tradition of studying medicine. “Then I took chemistry the first semester and realized, ‘Nope, not for me!’” She did, however, lean on lineage in her decision to attend Penn. Her grandfather, the late Edward Saskin C’31, and mother, Virginia Saskin Boockvar CW’65, attended before her. Her twin brothers, Daniel Boockvar C’93 L’96 and John Boockvar C’93, followed her there, arriving on campus to find “a leader in the community,” says John, now a neurosurgeon featured on the Netflix documentary series Lenox Hill (see “Streaming Surgeons”). “It was inspiring. And she became a great role model for us.”

A legal studies class taught by Kenneth Shropshire, the David W. Hauck Professor Emeritus of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, sent Boockvar down the law path, and her experience at the University proved so formative that the native New Yorker decided to begin her career in Pennsylvania after graduating from law school at American University. She and her husband Jordan Yeager, whom she met at law school and is now a judge, opened their own firm in Bucks County—Boockvar & Yeager—which they ran for 11 years while raising a daughter. After representing, pro bono, a low-income community group that had its polling place moved, she applied for a job at the Advancement Project, a nonprofit organization run by Judith Browne Dianis W’87 [“Alumni Profiles,” Nov|Dec 2019] that focuses on racial justice issues.

She accepted a position as a voting rights attorney leading up to the 2008 primary and quickly discovered Pennsylvania’s voting inequities, seeing incredibly long lines and poor organization at polling places in communities of color. One of the biggest issues she worked to correct was urging her future employer, the Pennsylvania Department of State, to “put a much clearer directive to counties that every voter needed to be offered an emergency paper ballot” if a machine broke, rather than being told to “go home and come back later.”

After three years at the Advancement Project, she was recruited to run for Congress in 2012 as a Democrat in what some analysts had identified as a possible “red to blue” Pennsylvania district. Though she admits “it was not on my bucket list” and she lost to incumbent Michael Fitzpatrick, she still calls it a “life-changing” experience. “What I realized in that campaign,” she says, “was that I loved having a million balls in the air at one time.”

Her brother John believes she’d make a fine elected official if she ever runs again, in large part because she’s a “glass is half full” kind of person who “doesn’t have that politicians’ personality.” Boockvar, though, hasn’t followed a traditional political path. Not long after her congressional run, she served as executive director of Lifecycle WomanCare, a women’s healthcare nonprofit that blended her interests in public health, law, and policy. After four years there, she accepted the “opportunity of a lifetime” to join Governor Wolf’s cabinet in Harrisburg, first as a senior advisor on election modernization and then the Secretary of the Commonwealth, where, in addition to her role promoting the integrity of the electoral process, she also oversees professional licensing, the state athletic commission, and more.

“When I talk to young people, my primary message is to never have blinders on, to never think life will be a straight path,” she says. “Because if you do, you’ll miss the things to the right and left that might lead to a more interesting career. I’m thankful for every experience that’s come my way—and if I had those blinders on, I would’ve missed half of them.”

For now, it’s hard for Boockvar to look beyond November 3. She plans to ensure that the 8.5 million registered voters in the state all receive applications for mail-in ballots, and has been pushing for the General Assembly to pass a law allowing counties to begin pre-canvassing ballots before Election Day (a lengthy process that involves extracting documents from two sets of envelopes—“basically everything except for counting,” she notes).

She’s aware that mail-in voting has become a hot-button issue, in large part due to rhetoric from President Donald Trump W’68, whose reelection campaign sued Pennsylvania over its mail-in drop-off sites for ballots. But Boockvar has been working with the National Association of Secretaries of State (of which she is the elections committee co-chair) and other federal agencies to “make sure voters know they can rely on county and state election offices to provide accurate information,” she says. “Don’t think what you see on Twitter or what you see on Facebook or whatever is accurate.”

Indeed, despite “misinformation” floating around social media about the potential for fraud, voting absentee has “been an incredibly safe, secure process for decades,” she says, adding that a voter’s eligibility is checked before they get a ballot and again once the county receives it. “And none of that has changed. There’s just more people taking advantage of it.”

And just as she’s spent almost two years fortifying voting systems’ defenses, adding multiple layers of protection to secure voter registration databases, and creating other safeguards against election interference, Boockvar’s state department is prepared to conduct a November election as smooth as the one held five months earlier amidst unprecedented conditions.

“Yes, November 3rd is going to be insane,” she says. “But we have the framework for everything in place.” —DZ

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