NORRISTOWN, Pa. — Neil Makhija is on a mission.

As the county commissioner in charge of elections here in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, he is determined to get as many people out to vote in November as he can. It’s a big part of the reason he campaigned for the job. 

“I’m probably one of the first people to run for a county commissioner seat in Pennsylvania because of the role of administering elections,” said Makhija, 37, a Democrat who took office in January and previously taught election law at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“When this seat opened up, I thought this is a real place where we can make a difference, protect voting rights and really set the standard in Pennsylvania and for the country,” he added. 

But to get more people to vote, Makhija realized he would need to get creative. 

That’s why on a Thursday in April, Makhija had gathered 16 Montgomery County voters at the county commissioner’s office to present them with leather-bound certificates honoring a lifetime of civic duty.

It was the first Montgomery County Voter Hall of Fame. 

After official county business wrapped, Makhija and his two fellow commissioners stood in front of the room’s imposing wooden desk to greet the honorees, who were found by combing through the county and state electoral records for voters who had cast ballots in the last 50 consecutive general elections. Makhija polled the room about how long they’d been voting. The oldest honoree had been voting since 1956.

“Anybody got 1956 beat? This is like an auction,” Makhija joked.

As a photographer captured the moments, the honorees posed at the front of the room with the commissioners and their new certificates.

The mood was celebratory, but the mission behind the ceremony was serious.

Central to Makhija’s efforts is understanding what makes people like honorees Alan and Rosemary Hinkle tick. The couple has voted in every election since 1972, when Alan was 21 and Rosemary was 18.

“I think it’s so important that in the midst of everything that’s happening in politics, where people are cynical or disillusioned, that we actually recognize the people who are so committed to the system,” Makhija said. 

He said he hopes that initiatives like the Hall of Fame will not only inspire other voters to turn out, but also inspire him to come up with new ways to make voting more accessible. According to NBC News polling going back to 2008, election enthusiasm is at an all-time low for a presidential contest.

Pennsylvania clinched the White House for Joe Biden in 2020 — thanks in large part to places like Montgomery County, a largely white, highly educated, wealthy suburb of Philadelphia that trends blue. Biden was able to expand his margin of victory in Philadelphia’s surrounding counties — Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware — by more than 100,000 votes over what Democrat Hillary Clinton earned in 2016, offsetting gains former President Donald Trump made in the state’s smaller counties.

“We’re the most courted voters in the whole country,” Makhija said. “I think reminding people in our communities that we set the direction of the country will make a difference.”

Makhija isn’t just battling a lack of enthusiasm for the two candidates; he’s also contending with a firehose of disinformation about the entire electoral system, just as so many other election workers are across the country. 

Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting is a vehicle for widespread voter fraud. The former president also continues to push the baseless theory that the 2020 election was stolen from him. 

“When you see them cheating, you get out there and start screaming,” Trump said at a rally in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, last weekend. “The radical left Democrats rigged the presidential election in 2020, and we’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election of 2024.”

Makhija said claims like that cause “fear and cynicism by design,” and he worries that it will cause voters of both parties to skip the ballot box in November.

“When you challenge the whole system, people will rethink their participation,” he said. 

Still, Makhija expects the Republican nominee to continue to sow doubt about the validity of mail-in ballots, despite attempts from local GOP officials to embrace mail-in and early voting to match what’s been an advantage for Democrats in recent years.

To that end, he’s trying to build trust in the early voting system that will span across party lines. He’s aiming to literally meet voters where they are by expanding election satellite offices for people who need to “cure” their ballots — the process of allowing voters to fix their mail ballots with technical issues, such as an incorrect date or a missing signature, that otherwise may not be counted on Election Day. Makjiha also hopes to establish a mobile unit that would travel around the county to help people resolve any mistakes they made on their mail-in ballots.

“Instead of throwing out their votes, we’ll be trying to help voters cure ballots with technical errors for about 2,000 people in the last two weeks of the election,” he said.

In battleground Pennsylvania, every one of those votes will count — something Montgomery County’s Hall of Fame inductees know all too well. 

The Hinkels aren’t sure which way they’ll vote yet — but they say they are “absolutely” decided on one thing: They’ll be casting ballots in 2024.

“If you don’t want other people making the decision for you,” Rosemary Hinkle said, “then you have to participate.”

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