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In Pennsylvania governor's race, the future of elections is at stake

Republican candidate for Pennsylvania Governor Doug Mastriano holds a rally at Deja Vu Social Club on Sept. 30, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Mastriano faces Democratic challenger Josh Shapiro for the November election. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Republican candidate for Pennsylvania Governor Doug Mastriano holds a rally at Deja Vu Social Club on Sept. 30, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mastriano faces Democratic challenger Josh Shapiro for the November election. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The midterm elections will give voters in many states the opportunity to choose the person tasked with running state elections. It’s a powerful position amid a growing wave of doubt about the integrity of the voting process.

But in the state of Pennsylvania, that job won’t be on the ballot.

Last month, in an old classic theater, the local Republican Party in Northampton County hosted not a speech nor a rubber chicken dinner — but a watch party.

Dozens of people came out to this battleground county just north of Philadelphia to watch a new film called, “2000 Mules.” The film has been widely discredited because it purports to document election fraud.

The star of the film is Dinesh D’Souza, a right-wing commentator who has long trafficked in conspiracy theories. His main argument is that cellphone tracking data and video suggest evidence of ballot “mules,” people who illegally haul multiple ballots to voter drop boxes and stuff them in.

By DSouza’s math, some 2,000 “mules” delivered 400,000 dodgy votes in 2020. Enough to put President Biden over the top.

Data analysts in the film refused to hand over evidence for their claims to lawmakers in Wisconsin or law enforcement in Arizona. But in Pennsylvania, the film is convincing enough for some voters.

Just ask Lisa Peters.

“I suspected voter fraud, and I wanted to see what kind of evidence they had,” she says. “I think it was pretty rock solid. Their evidence, what they brought forth, it’s indisputable.”

Jean Walk agrees.

“This isn’t something Dinesh and these people made up,” she says. “This is the truth of what happened. And you feel so cheated by it.”

Chad Christman says he felt the film underscored the main issue that he believes mangled the 2020 election: voting by dropbox or mail.

“For those of us that have critical thinking, it didn’t take much to connect the dots of COVID being the catalyst to start mail in ballots,” he says. “Without mail in ballots, you don’t have this.”

These are all loyal supporters of Doug Mastriano, a Republican state senator running for Pennsylvania governor. And in the Keystone State, the governor appoints the person who oversees elections. If elected, Mastriano vowed to purge voting rolls. He’s also been fighting to limit the use of drop boxes.

“We have ample video footage, now these drop boxes, in my mind, are illegal, and I believe that compromised our election,” Mastriano says.

Three weeks after the 2020 election, as former President Donald Trump and his allies were contesting their loss in Pennsylvania, Mastriano chaired a faux “hearing” in Gettysburg with fellow Republicans.

A month later, Mastriano spent more than $3,000 dollars to bus Trump supporters to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6. He’s also considered an extremist by some, most notably for his anti-Semitic rhetoric about his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish.

If elected, Mastriano has said he would appoint a woman as secretary of the commonwealth. It’s widely reported that a woman named Toni Shuppe is a leading candidate. She’s the founder of a group called Audit the Vote PA, which claims to be a nonprofit organization advocating for “a free and fair election” across the state. She told the podcast “The Cannabis Conservative” that she believes there was widespread fraud in 2020.

“We know that the election was stolen, that there were all these anomalies,” Shuppe says. “Now what we have is proof from knocking on doors and specifics on the ground.”

The question is, if Shuppe or another election denier were in the job, how could she change how elections are run — or decided?

It turns out, the secretary of the commonwealth has expansive power over how the state’s elections are run, says Daniel Mallinson, a political scientist at Penn State Harrisburg.

“If we’re thinking of the presidential race, the secretary of state certifies the vote and then it goes to the governor to sign off on the slate of electors that ultimately then meets and cast their ballots for the Electoral College,” he says. “So that’s certainly a big way that a secretary of state could hold up the process or refuse to certify.”

The secretary of state could also suggest that counties restrict the use of drop boxes or mail-in ballots. Mallinson says all kinds of fringe things could arise that people haven’t even thought of. For instance, the secretary of state could decide to delay the counting of votes cast in the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia.

“In the past, I would have said that that would be crazy,” he says. “But it’s entirely possible if somebody is willing to put that kind of, I guess, chaos into the election process.”

And Mallinson says an election decision could be thrown into the hands of state courts or lawmakers. Right now, Republicans hold a majority in both chambers of the state legislature.

“Ultimately a constitution or a set of statutes are words on a piece of paper,” Mallinson says. “They don’t enforce themselves. It requires willing and good actors to do the right thing and to do their jobs appropriately for that system to function well and for people to have confidence in it.”

Confidence is something that voters across Pennsylvania have already indicated they are losing in both the election process and the people who run them.

In Lehigh County, a county judge recently threw out a request by a Republican advocacy group hoping to limit the use of drop boxes. And since 2020, election board members in more than half of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have left, says Phillips Armstrong, who runs the local election in Lehigh County.

“The reason is we get threats,” he says. “We’re here to make sure it’s verified, correctly done, and there’s been no misinformation.”

Armstrong says he’s received threats himself.

So has Al Schmidt, the former Republican commissioner of Philadelphia. When the 2020 results in Pennsylvania were being contested, Trump blamed him.

Schmidt has since left public office and is now the president of a nonpartisan nonprofit called Committee of Seventy.

“I think the more troubling thing with it is that it’s a lot easier to deceive someone than to convince someone that they’ve been deceived, and we’ve had a third of Americans and a majority of my party having been deceived about election results for a long time now, almost two years now, if not longer,” Schmidt says. “And the longer people believe in these lies, the harder I think it will be to bring them around to reality.”

These claims of election fraud in Pennsylvania are widely discredited, namely by Jim Martin, the Republican district attorney of Lehigh County

“It’s almost ludicrous to, in my opinion, attack drop boxes when essentially you got hundreds of them throughout Lehigh County. They’re called mailboxes,” he says. “I would say that in Lehigh County, we haven’t uncovered — I called it a smoking gun — we haven’t uncovered any fraud as a result of it. I don’t think there has been any.”

Shapiro, Mastriano’s Democratic opponent, says if elected, he’ll appoint a “pro-democracy” secretary of state to protect mail-in voting.

Just like 2020, Pennsylvania will be front and center in November’s midterms. State election rules don’t allow workers to start counting mail-in ballots until the morning of Election Day, so results will likely be late again.

Mallinson says that presents a golden opportunity to sow disinformation, which slowly erodes democracy.

“It’s also important to be sober because democracies do die, and they do crumble,” he says. “And so there’s a lot of vigilance required to maintain democracy.”

It’s something Pennsylvania voters will have to consider in electing their next governor, ultimately deciding the future of their state’s elections.


Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Ciku Theuri. Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.