Saturday, September 24, 2022

As Trump falsely assails another election, Pa. officials gird for November


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Former president Donald Trump escalated his baseless assault on Pennsylvania’s elections Thursday even as other Republicans declined to embrace his stance and election officials cautioned that his rhetoric could further erode confidence in the democratic system.

For the second day, Trump again questioned the legitimacy of mail-in ballots in the state’s too-close-to-call Republican Senate primary race as the former president’s preferred candidate saw his narrow lead dwindle.

A recount is basically assured as Mehmet Oz, who Trump endorsed, now leads David McCormick by just 1,080 votes with thousands of mail-in ballots left to count out of the million-plus that were cast. The winner will go on to compete in one of the most consequential campaigns of the midterms against Democratic nominee John Fetterman.

The dynamic reflects how, following the precedent set in 2020, close elections may face scrutiny and doubt even when there is no evidence to support wrongdoing or error. Election officials in Pennsylvania are girding for similar complaints in November, but fear there are few ways to combat deliberate misinformation and rising political toxicity.

Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey, whose retirement created the open Senate seat, said he had been impressed with both McCormick and Oz, neither of whom have questioned the results. He was critical of Trump’s evidence-free assertions of malfeasance.

“That’s not the least bit surprising given his history and what we know about Donald Trump,” Toomey said of Trump’s comments. “It’s much to Mehmet Oz’s credit that he hasn’t adopted that rhetoric and seems to be adhering to what used to be the conventional view that all the legal ballots should be counted.”

Trump, on his social media site, Truth Social, posted Thursday morning: “The Pennsylvania Oz race is ridiculous. How long does it take to count votes. France, same day all paper, had VERIFIED numbers in evening. U.S. is a laughingstock on Elections. Stop FINDING VOTES in PENNSYLVANIA! RIGGED?”

A day earlier, Trump urged Oz to declare victory before more votes can be counted. Oz has not taken that advice.

Other Republicans in Pennsylvania have recoiled at language from Trump that they say could undermine the legitimacy of the party’s nominee in the November vote, as well as sow even greater doubt about the democratic process.

“It’s concerning because it’s statements like that that lead to threats against election officials. It’s the same game plan he used in 2020, so I’m not surprised,” said Seth Bluestein, a Republican city commissioner in Philadelphia. “The most important thing we can do is be as transparent as possible, continue to build those relationships so there is a degree of trust between us and the people observing the election.”

When asked about the former president’s comments, other Trump allies like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who backed McCormick in Pennsylvania, said every vote should be counted. But Cruz also cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots.

“Clearly they’re a problem and Pennsylvania, unfortunately, like a lot of other states, has expanded mail-in ballots excessively. And it creates a serious opportunity for mischief,” Cruz said in an interview on Capitol Hill. “You know, somehow other states manage to count their votes on Election Day. And this train wreck keeps repeating itself.”

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As in 2020, the delay in completing the counting of thousands of mail-in ballots has created space for Trump and his allies to raise doubts about the outcome. Under state law, county officials are not allowed to start processing ballots submitted by mail until Election Day. They have called on state lawmakers to change the law to allow ballots to be processed as they are received, as is common in other states including Arizona and Florida.

Al Schmidt, who was the Republican city commissioner in Philadelphia during the 2020 recount and now works for a government reform group, said Pennsylvania needs to move to a process where, at minimum, the arduous work of removing ballots from the envelopes and checking signatures can start before Election Day.

“This was entirely predictable that there is a delay in reporting mail-in ballot votes that the president is exploiting,” he said. “When the former president targets [election officials] it’s difficult for them to counter the force of that narrative no matter how false or absurd it might be.”

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association in Pennsylvania, said election officials are in constant communication about how to best combat misinformation and try to reassure voters that elections are secure. Some have produced new videos about election procedures. Others have held public forums or invited members of the public to tour their offices.

“We do everything we can to continually message how we run fair, secure and accurate elections,” she said.

But she added that many people with suspicions “aren’t looking to be convinced otherwise.”

“When we’re talking about all those things that make our elections fair, secure and accurate, it’s not necessarily making a dent with the folks we want to convince,” she said.

Jackie Kulback, chairwoman of the Cambria County Republicans, said she believed there had been “mischief” in the 2020 race, but also that she didn’t want people to lose faith in fair elections.

After 2020, she vowed to observe any recounts, and said that she would do so in this primary contest if it goes to a recount, as it almost certainly will. That process could mean the winner is not known until the second week of June.

Kulback said that, at least in her county, she has not seen any evidence of voter fraud.

“All I can say is from my vantage point, I could not have been prouder of my election board and every person who was working. I saw a group of people who were truly diligent and trying to do what was right,” she said.

Other local Republicans were more aghast that Trump would try to promote discord in the GOP primary.

“I’m flabbergasted. When somebody who advocates that everybody needs to get their votes out and their opponents are cheating, and now he is talking about his own party?” said Dave Ball, chairman of the Washington County Republicans. “When the president says let’s cut it off here because I like the number here, so let’s stop, I don’t understand the point of making statements like that.”

The delay in reporting results is a natural outcome of the prohibition against counties processing mail-in ballots until Election Day and has created space for suspicion in the process, said Rochelle Kaplan, director of voter services for the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.

“It just created a wedge to get in there,” she said. Pennsylvanians became accustomed to getting election results shortly after polls closed. But with the expansion of mail-in balloting, the count now takes longer.

“There was this expectation, ‘Of course we will know.’ Well, now, you’re not going to know [quickly],” she said, noting the count can take several days.

Kaplan said she served as a poll worker for the first time in her home of Lehigh County on Tuesday for the primary and witnessed suspicion from voters firsthand.

“There were questions about whether or not their ballot would actually be scanned in accurately, would actually be sent in to the county,” she said. “I’m hoping they left feeling they got accurate information, information they could trust. But the fact that they asked the question, it was sad.”

County officials have gotten better at speedily processing and counting mail-in ballots on Election Day since 2020. But changing the law to allow mail-in ballots to be processed sooner could ease a lot of the suspicion, experts say.

The Republican-led General Assembly included that change in a legislative package that would have restricted access to voting in other ways. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill.

Election officials are also eagerly awaiting a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that could dramatically reshape mail-in balloting in November. In January, a lower court ruled that no excuse mail-in balloting violates the state constitution. The ruling was appealed and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in March.

McCormick’s campaign told reporters on a call Thursday that they were confident he was going to prevail in the end given the remaining ballots left to be counted. Oz, appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program Wednesday night, offered similar optimism.

Hannity agreed with Oz’s assessment of where things stood, saying, “I did a lot of digging myself and I’m pretty confident of my numbers, but time will tell.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

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