American Democracy Under Threat: Pennsylvania

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Like all the battleground states profiled by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, Pennsylvania saw fierce battles over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. As votes were being counted in the days after the election, and Joe Biden’s win was becoming more apparent, protesters began gathering in front of the state’s Capitol. Four days after Election Day, more than a thousand people showed up on the Capitol plaza, many wearing MAGA hats and Trump regalia, chanting “Stop the Steal!” As Biden’s lead grew to more than 30,000 votes, the crowds featured people armed with assault-style rifles, members of the white supremacist Proud Boys and the militia group Three Percenters, and Groypers, young supporters of white nationalist Nick Fuentes’s organization America First. The protests lasted a few days and took place in multiple locations, including outside Philadelphia’s Convention Center.

An alleged attempt to disrupt the vote count happening inside the Philadelphia Convention Center was made by two men who drove from Virginia to Philadelphia.. Their Hummer displayed stickers for the QAnon conspiracy theory and both men were carrying loaded handguns and had several other weapons stored in the car, including an AR-15 style rifle, ammunition, and a Samurai sword. The men were arrested on weapons charges, and one of them, Joshua Macias, founder of Vets for Trump,  surfaced again in investigations into the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Video footage released as part of the January 6 Select Committee hearings revealed Macias was part of a meeting that took place the day before the Capitol storming in an underground parking garage with the leader of the Oath Keepers, the leader of the Proud Boys, and other Trump supporters. The other man in the Hummer, Antonio LaMotta, was charged with four misdemeanors. According to prosecutors, LaMotta and Macias believed that fake ballots were being counted inside the convention center. LaMotta was arrested in August 2022 for allegedly illegally trespassing at the Capitol on January 6.

At trial, prosecutors argued that Macias and LaMotta planned a mass shooting as the outcome of the presidential election remained uncertain. But in October 2022, a Common Pleas Court Judge rejected that theory, finding the men guilty only of bringing weapons to the city without a permit. Both men remain free on bail regarding the Philadelphia incident, pending a scheduled sentencing in December, when they face a possible sentence of probation to 18 months in jail. La Motta still faces charges stemming from January 6.

Pennsylvania continues to see extremist protests like the ones after Election Day in 2020. In July 2022, in Philadelphia, affiliates of the antigovernment groups, 1776 Restoration Movement and the Three Percenters, members of the Proud Boys, and Iron City Citizen Response Unit members, including the group’s founder who was armed during the event, participated in a rally against COVID-19 vaccines, health mandates, and abortion access. According to ACLED, from January 2020 to June 2021, there were eight armed demonstrations in Pennsylvania.

Despite all the protests, and much like what has happened elsewhere, fraud was nowhere to be found in Pennsylvania. Multiple court rulings, two state-mandated audits of nearly every county, and election experts and officials of both parties all concluded the results of the 2020 election were accurate. The Pennsylvania Department of State, which administers elections, conducted a risk-limiting audit of the 2020 election and found “strong evidence” of the vote count’s accuracy.

None of this evidence has held sway with the state’s election deniers. In May 2021, three Pennsylvania lawmakers, including then-state senator and now GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, visited Phoenix where a partisan audit was being conducted by the firm Cyber Ninjas that ironically added to Biden’s tally there. In 2021, across Pennsylvania, citizen activists pushing for an audit began to form into the group, “Audit the Vote PA,” which, once formed, lobbied legislators and conducted voter canvassing. Protests by the audit group broke out across the state. After meeting with Senator David Argall in June 2021, about 50 protesters gathered on the Harrisburg Capitol steps to call for a legislative-led review of the 2020 presidential election results. “Prove us wrong,” the group chanted, while waving signs and praying.

Pennsylvania was an epicenter of online misinformation about its elections. In the aftermath of Election Day, social media was flooded with unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and conspiracy theories. One nearly minute-long video clip that went viral purported to show election staff filling out blank ballots in Delaware County. “This lady is marking the ballots. I filmed her a half hour ago doing six and she’s still working at it,” the video’s narrator says, adding the “cops are in on it.” The video was flooded with online comments amplifying the misinformation. “Voter Fraud this lady has been at it an hour. Pennsylvania camera number 7,” wrote one user who shared the video on Facebook. Similar versions of the video, captured from an authentic livestream of election workers in Delaware County, were also shared.

The claim gained massive traction online when Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA and election denier whose organization is working with national  groups who reject the 2020 vote, shared the video on his livestream. Though genuine footage of ballot counting, the video was manipulated by zooming the frame in to cut out the full scene of how ballots were being handled. Adrienne Marofsky, public relations director for Delaware County, said the video cropped out bipartisan observers, thus distorting events. “The cropped video portrays an election worker, seemingly alone at a table, marking a ballot. The actual video shows the election worker at a table with other coworkers in a room full of people with bipartisan observers a few feet away at each end of the table, closely observing the worker from approximately 6 feet away,” an arrangement agreed to by the Election Bureau and the former Republican chairman of Delaware County Council.

Questionable Audits

There were apparent shenanigans around “auditing” the vote in Fulton County. In September 2021, officials there were ordered to begin releasing records related to the county’s audits of the 2020 election, following a ruling from Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records. The nonprofit American Oversight (AO) requested the records under the state’s Right to Know Law. After the county initially denied the requests, AO filed a successful administrative appeal.

The case resulted from an effort in December 2020 and February 2021 where Fulton County carried out audits of its election results. The audits, which were heavily pushed by Mastriano and other Trump supporters in the state, were conducted  by Wake TSI, which worked as a contractor for a nonprofit operated by attorney Sidney Powell, a key actor in Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results. Powell represented Trump in his efforts to challenge the outcome of the election, and was sanctioned by a federal judge for a lawsuit seeking to decertify Michigan’s election results. A few months later, Wake TSI joined the Arizona Senate’s partisan “audit” team, led by Cyber Ninjas, where it was in charge of a recount of ballots cast in Maricopa County.

In July 2021, Pennsylvania officials decertified Fulton County’s voting machines after concluding that Wake TSI’s examination of them violated the state’s election code. That same month, American Oversight sent public records requests to Fulton County seeking multiple sets of documents related to the audits, including communications of the county’s technology director regarding the inspection of election equipment. AO also asked the Fulton County elections director and the Board of Commissioners for records of their communications with election deniers, including Powell, Mastriano, and figures linked to audit efforts or election challenges in Arizona and other states.

In July 2021, Fulton County denied the requests and argued that the records were exempt from release. American Oversight filed an administrative appeal and in September, the agency granted the appeal and issued a final determination that Fulton’s County’s position “suffers from several fatal flaws” and that it must “produce all responsive records within thirty days.” In January 2022, American Oversight sued the county to compel the full release of these records, the county having only partially complied.

Gumming Up the Works

Like in other battleground states, conservative activists in Pennsylvania have inundated county elections offices with records requests from the 2020 election, potentially slowing down each county’s ability to prepare for the upcoming 2022 midterm election. The activists are seeking “cast vote records,” which show how a person voted. The “cast vote records” are of various kinds, including possible images of an individual’s ballot or the reports produced by ballot scanning machines to tabulate the results. This effort is being pushed at the national level by Trump ally and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who advocates requesting these records in every county in the United States. (Lindell is being sued by Smartmatic, which provides election technology, for defaming the company by falsely promoting the theory that its machines had been hacked or rigged in favor of Biden. A Minnesota judge in September refused Lindell’s request to have the suit thrown out).

In southwestern Pennsylvania, more than 40 such requests, usually employing a standard template, have been submitted to county election offices. At least a dozen requests were made in Allegheny County, a spokeswoman for the county said. Most of southwestern Pennsylvania’s counties told The Post-Gazette that the requests are not hindering their ability to prepare for the upcoming election, but that the requests can take away from election-preparation efforts. In Greene County, Director of Elections Judy Snyder said that the five requests that county employees received are impacting their ability to prepare for the November 2022 election. Across Pennsylvania, as of August 2022, at least 36 counties had received these requests.

Allegheny County in 2021 released these records, about a year before these requests started showing up in counties in bulk and before the Pennsylvania Department of State told counties that these are not considered public records. The records that were made public were allegedly shared with and reviewed by Michigan-based private company Speckin Forensics, which helped Arizona with its 2020 partisan election audit that has been discredited for failing to follow professional audit processes. In a letter dated Sept.16, a document analyst for Speckin Forensics claimed that some of the scanned images of ballots from the 2020 election in Allegheny County had “image quality” issues. County officials rejected this at a meeting in September 2022. The analyst did not claim there was any fraud, and acknowledged that he would need to review all of the county’s ballots to decide if the image quality “anomalies” mean anything.

Election Workers Threatened

As in other states, election workers have been threatened in Pennsylvania just for doing their jobs. Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who oversees elections in Philadelphia, was one target of these threats. Schmidt, a Republican, was attacked by Trump because Schmidt refused to go along with lies about voter fraud, and he  and his family were threatened by Trump-supporting extremists. One particularly chilling threat said, “Tell the truth or your three kids will be fatally shot.” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar saw a surge in the volume and severity of threats on November 13, 2020, when she confirmed that there would be no recount of the state’s results in the presidential vote. One message warned that someone would come to her home at night and kill her. She and her husband had to go into hiding for a week.

Others have been subjected to a scourge of fraudulent online attacks such as phishing emails. In Pennsylvania, malicious emails targeting county election workers surged around the state’s primary elections this past May, rising more than 546% in six months, to 7,555 by the end of the second quarter of 2022. One scheme involved attackers leveraging a years-old existing email thread between a county election worker and a government contractor distributing and collecting absentee-ballot applications. Because of the familiar names and the age of the correspondence, they felt that the scam was more likely to succeed.

Others are simply quitting. In Luzerne County, Former County Election Director Michael Susek resigned in July 2022 after less than a year on the job. He was the state’s fourth county election director to step down since 2019. As of this past March, around a third of Pennsylvania’s local election officials had left their jobs over the prior two years.

Extremists on the Ballot

Shortly after the election, GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano led a state Senate committee hearing that devolved into a pro-Trump rally featuring election conspiracy theorists. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was in attendance and Trump called in by phone to argue, falsely, that he won the election. Mastriano has continued to aggressively work to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results, by pushing for audits and repeatedly arguing the vote was somehow rigged.

Mastriano’s extremism runs far deeper than election denialism. He has paid the unregulated and hate-filled social media site Gab, which was used by the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter, $5,000 to promote his campaign, and accepted a donation from the site’s owner, Andrew Torba, a noted antisemite. He also sat for an interview with Torba. This turned into a mini-scandal for Mastriano, who in July 2022, six days after accepting Torba’s money, deleted his Gab account and issued a statement distancing himself from Torba and Gab. Rather than taking responsibility for his relationship with Gab, he blamed democrats and the media for “smears.” He has attacked his opponent in the race, Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish, for sending his children to a Jewish Day School Mastriano calls a “privileged, exclusive, elite” entity, and he has suggested in public remarks that Shapiro shows “disdain for people like us,” presumably Christians. He has been criticized for dog-whistling antisemitism in these attacks.

Mastriano has close links with QAnon, the  conspiracy theory that alleges democrats and Hollywood actors are engaged in child trafficking. In fact, Mastriano is the most prominent QAnon-aligned candidate to win a GOP primary so far. He has regularly used the hashtags #QAnon and #thegreatawakening, and in April 2022 spoke at a QAnon conference, where he argued that America is a Christian nation, disparaged “this myth of the separation of church and state,” and said that he and his allies are “taking our country back.” Mastriano is also involved in a coalition of QAnon-aligned candidates that formed in mid-2021. And he was the Trump campaign’s “point person” in the scheme to appoint fake electors to overturn the 2020 election.

Mastriano was in Washington, D.C., on January 6, having used campaign funds to charter buses to the nation’s capital that day. He marched to the Capitol but claims to have left when the mob became violent. Video later emerged showing that Mastriano crossed breached barricades. Along with promoting false claims of voter fraud, U.S. Senate Democrats have alleged Mastriano tried to pressure U.S. Department of Justice officials to overturn the 2020 election. In February, the U.S. House of Representatives Jan. 6 Select Committee subpoenaed Mastriano, telling him to turn over documents by March 1 and appear for a deposition on March 10. He was interviewed but cut his interview short. He has since sued the select committee, contesting its legitimacy and arguing that it cannot compel him to testify.

If Mastriano  wins the gubernatorial race this year, he will have the power  to appoint a secretary of state who, in turn, has the power to  possibly undercut the 2024 election process, by among other things, throwing out all existing voter registrations and decertifying certain voting machines.

Mastriano isn’t the only Pennsylvania candidate with a history of extreme positions. U.S. Representative Scott Perry, chairman of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, had his cell phone seized by the FBI as part of its investigation into “fake electors” in the 2020 election. Perry reportedly called former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue and tried to pressure him into investigating debunked election fraud claims made in Pennsylvania, complaining that the DOJ was not doing enough to investigate such claims. The report raises what The New York Times has described as “fresh questions” about the role that Perry “played in the White House effort to pressure the Justice Department to help upend the election.” The report also indicates that Perry took a “direct role” in trying to help Trump put loyalists into the Justice Department.  In June, the January 6 Select Committee revealed that Perry contacted the White House in the weeks after January 6 to seek a presidential pardon for his role in attempting to overturn the presidential election. The committee has also brought to light that a witness who allegedly saw Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, incinerating documents after a meeting with Perry in the weeks after the 2020 election. Perry also was among the Pennsylvania lawmakers who signed onto a Texas-led lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s election results.

Other election deniers are also running in Pennsylvania. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor, who is running for U.S. Senate on the GOP ticket, has “raised questions” about the results of the 2020 contest. In total, ten Republicans and most of the Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation have denied the validity of the 2020 election results.

Election Denier Groups in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, there are many small election denier groups across the state, but the most problematic group active statewide is Audit the Vote PA, which emerged in the days after the 2020 election. The state GOP is also heavily involved in training poll workers and others involved in election infrastructure under the leadership of Andrea Raffle, the RNC’s election integrity director for Pennsylvania. As of May, the RNC had held about 120 training sessions with more than 1,600 attendees in the state. The RNC has also worked with Cleta Mitchell’s election denying organization in at least one organizing summit held in Pennsylvania. The organizations profiled below are some of the most active election deniers in Pennsylvania, though this should by no means be seen as covering all the groups involved in these efforts.

Audit the Vote PA
Cranberry Township
https://www.auditthevotepa.com
https://www.facebook.com/auditthevotepa/
https://mobile.twitter.com/auditthevotepa
https://t.me/s/auditthevotepa
https://www.instagram.com/auditthevotepa/

Co-founded by Toni Shuppe, a Beaver County resident who is its most visible activist, Audit the Vote PA (AVPA) was formed after the November 2020 election. Shuppe has written that activism was spurred, in part, by watching a 10-part, three-hour online video called “The Fall Of The Cabal.” The video promotes a wide variety of conspiracy theories, including some related to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and others such as Pizzagate and QAnon. In one startling scene from the video, the narrator claims that “worldwide, children are stolen and sold to elite pedophile rings,” which then “drink the childrens’ blood and they eat their flesh.” NPR asked Shuppe if she believed that specific claim. “I have no idea,” Shuppe responded. “Wish I knew. Great question though. Why don’t you do some digging to figure that out and report back?” As Shuppe recounted in a video posted to Facebook that she was in Washington, D.C., and outside the Capitol during the January 6 Capitol attack, but says she did not witness any violence that day. AVPA has  been involved in several different efforts questioning the 2020 election results. The group advocates going back to paper ballots. “Stick the machines in the closet and hand-count the paper ballots,” wrote Shuppe, an issue that the group has tried to get on the ballot in the form of a referendum. “Election integrity can only be achieved when the process is transparent. Not having access to what is going on inside the machines decreases transparency and therefore negatively affects the integrity of the electoral process.” The group has engaged in various forms of election denial, including falsely claiming voter fraud in Lancaster County, where it engaged in a surveying effort of the voter rolls that sought out “phantom voters” and “phantom registrations.” The group’s founder has cited this work as evidence the 2020 results should be decertified. But an analysis of AVPA’s canvassing operation conducted by Lancaster Online found the group’s work was “rife with errors and speculation and that its methodology was deeply flawed, mistakes that undermine its conclusion and make its findings unreliable.” Shuppe acknowledged that some of the group’s data are flawed based on Lancaster Online’s analysis, but maintained that the presidential election was plagued by fraud. “No matter how many errors we might have made, and they are small as you’ve discovered, the results from the 2020 election cannot be trusted,” Shuppe wrote in an email. Regardless, the group is using these efforts to mobilize poll workers, gain concessions and support from state lawmakers, and run for office themselves. AVPA has also been lobbying elected officials to engage in various audits. After an unsatisfactory meeting with State Senator David Argall, AVPA told supporters they were proceeding to a “Plan B.” “We served Senator Argall with a notarized affidavit for maladministration for not listening to the people he is hired to represent,” the group said. The group claimed violating this affidavit would result in a $1,000-a-day fine for everyday Argall “chooses to do nothing.”  Widener University Law School professor Mike Dimino said “such a threat would not carry any legal authority.” Just recently, AVPA has said it was joining efforts to surveil voting drop boxes that are also forming in other states. Shuppe also leads Pennsylvania’s “Election Integrity Coalition,” a partner with the national level efforts of Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell’s Conservative Partnership Institute, which is holding election integrity summits in battleground states (Mitchell is currently under subpoena in a criminal investigation by the Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney). Mitchell speaks openly about the need to challenge efforts by nonprofit groups aligned with Democrats to create a “new American majority” of young voters, people of color and unmarried women.

Butler PA Patriots
Butler
https://www.butlerpapatriots.org

Zach Sherer is the president of Butler PA Patriots, which describes itself as “a volunteer, local organization dedicated to preserving traditional conservative American values and ideals through elected positions and procedures that observe our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and the Bill of Rights and re-establishes the founding fathers’ framework that America is ‘one nation, under God, of the people, for the people, and by the people.’” One of its major focuses is so-called election integrity. Scherer’s group was successful in pressuring the Butler County commissioners to re-canvass some of the votes from the 2020 election. The Butler County elections office completed a hand-recount of two precincts from the 2020 election, which took nearly 170 total work hours for elections staff to sort and count ballots from two randomly selected precincts, or 1,661 ballots. Three discrepancies were found among all 1,661 ballots reviewed — two of which were caused by a human miscounting votes and one because of machine error, according to a report by the county’s acting elections director and solicitor, William White. Scherer said he was still unhappy with the process and claimed it was not transparent because they did not explain the discrepancies even though they were disclosed in a detailed report by White. Currently, the group is working to get a referendum banning electronic voting machines on the November 2022 ballot, one of several similar county-level efforts. As of mid-September, they had not collected enough signatures to do so. If they do, and the referendum is rejected, Scherer wouldn’t say whether his group would respect the outcome. “It’s hard to say,” Scherer said. “It depends on how the election goes. Once [Butler PA Patriots] conduct our research and do canvassing again … if we find no irregularities this time, then the results are the results.” The group is also close to election denier and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, whose videos their website links to, and other election deniers, including Audit the Vote PA.

Free PA
https://www.freepa.net
https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100064831116851

Founded by Tabitha Valleau, whose activism was spurred on by the fight against pandemic measures, FreePA has chapters in 12 Pennsylvania counties. The group’s website continues to host anti-vax material. The group fervently rejects mail-in ballots and has joined with dozens of similar groups in Pennsylvania pushing a declaration of election integrity that demands state officials end mail-in voting immediately. The group’s website features dozens of self-described “patriot” groups that have signed on to the declaration. “Every elected representative in Pennsylvania should be terrified,” said Tabitha Valleau about this movement. “There are a whole lot of registered voters represented behind me today and this group stands as one and we’ll do whatever it takes to replace anyone who does not stand with the people.” Their declaration also demands photo identification, proof of U.S. citizenship and state residency to vote, as well as paper ballots. Valleau is popular on the far-right Christian circuit in Pennsylvania, which also has many election deniers. In October, she was on the bill for the “Christians Engaged” conference in York, which also featured Scott Perry. Valleau is interviewed in the film, “The Return of the American Patriot: The Rise of Pennsylvania,” a documentary that highlights the growth of the patriot movement in the state. Valleau has had some unsavory connections. She was part of a Facebook group, “Lancaster, PA for Free and Fair Elections,” where Charles Bausman was a prolific poster. Bausman’s historic Lancaster Township barn was used for an August 2020 rally of white nationalists, and his longtime website, Russia Insider, serves that country’s political interests, including defending Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. Some of the site’s articles were penned by the same men who formed the white nationalist National Justice Party at Bausman’s barn. When Bausman posted on the Facebook group that State Representative Bryan Cutler needed to be pressured to do something about what Bausman thinks was the rigged 2020 election, Valleau answered the call. “I am working on a call to action,” wrote Valleau. That call to action was for a December 5, 2020, protest outside Cutler’s home in Peach Bottom. About three dozen protesters gathered, including Samuel Lazar, of Ephrata, and Sandy Weyer, of Mechanicsburg, who later were arrested for their actions at the Capitol on January 6. Bausman attended the Peach Bottom rally, as well as a pro-Trump rally in Harrisburg featuring Nick Fuentes, leader of America First, a movement made up mostly of young, male white supremacists.

Unite PA
https://unitepa.net/news
https://www.facebook.com/unitepenn/

Founded by Sam Faddis, UnitePA’s main focus is pressing legislators to sign its election integrity declaration, which states:Whereas electoral integrity is essential to the functioning of a constitutional republic, and Whereas, the move to mail-in and drop-box voting in Pennsylvania has seriously undermined the integrity of our electoral process.  We the People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania do hereby demand that the Pennsylvania state legislature immediately return the Commonwealth to in-person voting on election day, with the exceptions as noted in the PA election code prior to ACT 77, with photo identification, proof of U.S. citizenship, state residency and hard copy paper ballots.” The declaration has been signed by major election deniers in the state including Doug Mastriano, Chris Leppler, Lancaster County sheriff, and several GOP leaders, office holders, and candidates. The group also focuses on “working to address issues such as election integrity, mask mandates, vaccine mandates, unwillingness of institutions to honor religious exemptions, and working with parents to address other issues such as Critical Race Theory.” In September, the group took part in PA Liberty Fest, which featured other election denying individuals and organizations including Audit the Vote PA. They’ve also hosted viewing of “2,000 Mules,” a film that falsely promotes the idea of election fraud in the 2020 vote.

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