This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
Since 2020, when former President Donald Trump and his allies began spreading conspiracy theories that the presidential election had been stolen, such falsehoods have become a prevalent feature of U.S. local, state, and national elections.
That’s especially true in swing states like Pennsylvania, and this year’s 2022 midterm election — featuring high-stakes races for governor and U.S. Senate — is no exception.
Sometimes, familiar theories reemerge. Other times, new issues pop up and gain traction. Here are four of the prominent false or misleading concerns that are circulating right now:
One is the idea that Pennsylvania’s voting machines are connected to the internet and therefore vulnerable to malicious hacking.
That’s not true.
But it’s one of many pieces of misinformation that Toni Shuppe — who might be GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano’s pick for secretary of state — recently posited to followers on her popular Substack. Shuppe is a co-founder of the group Audit the Vote Pa., which has conducted flawed surveys of 2020 voters in a futile search for widespread fraud.
Repeatedly, local election officials have confirmed that the machines they currently use are not, and never will be, connected to the internet. Pennsylvania also requires voting machines that have voter-verifiable paper records.
Another conspiracy theory that has grown popular since 2020 is that there’s something nefarious about the length of time it takes Pennsylvania — especially Philadelphia — to release unofficial election results.
But there’s nothing scandalous about the delay. It’s just a function of the commonwealth’s election law.
Pennsylvania doesn’t allow counties to begin processing mail ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day. That was fine when there was limited mail voting, but it became an issue after 2019, when the state dramatically expanded access to the practice.
Beginning in 2020, many more people voted by mail than ever before — Democrats in particular — and those ballots took counties more time to process. Many states with mail voting start processing ballots well before Election Day to speed things up, but while Pennsylvania counties regularly ask for a legislative change to allow it, the legislature and governor still haven’t agreed on a fix.
That said, counties say they’ve gotten more efficient at counting since 2020, plus they’ve been bolstered by more money from the state and a new requirement that they count without breaks. The count likely won’t take as long this year as it did in 2020, but Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman has warned it could still take a couple of days — particularly if races are close. Large counties say they’ll likely have results Wednesday.
Despite reasons for the state’s slow count being well-known among state lawmakers and frequently discussed and explained publicly, that hasn’t stopped Mastriano, in particular, from spreading unfounded theories that slow results are sinister.
Asked on right-wing news network Real America’s Voice if Chapman’s warning about the count taking a couple of days was “a sign that the fix is in,” Mastriano said yes.
“That’s an attempt to have the fix in,” he said.
Some elected Republicans have advanced a misleading statistic that Pennsylvania has sent out a quarter of a million “unverified” mail ballots to individuals who lack valid ID.
The claim originates from an Oct. 25 letter sent by state Rep. Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon) to the Department of State highlighting 255,000 “not verified” voters who requested mail ballots, according to “records of 2022 Mail Ballot Data.” Ryan did answer a question from Spotlight PA about what data he was referencing.
The top two Senate Republicans — Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) — also referenced the claim in a letter to Chapman on Friday, saying that “conflicting reports regarding mail-in ballots of unverified voters have emerged.”
Election directors agreed the department hadn’t explained the process well, but also argued that Ryan’s letter lacked critical context and made a big deal about nothing
“The problem is the Department of State made a very pisspoor title that caused panic,” Dauphin County election director Jerry Feaser said.
The term refers to voters who applied online for a mail ballot, but whose provided name, date of birth, PennDOT ID, or Social Security number couldn’t be automatically matched against data available in the state voter file.
That verification then falls to the county issuing that mail ballot, and according to Department of State data, they verify identities in 97% of cases.
Election directors said they do that by running a manual check with the federal government or their own records.
The 3% who still aren’t matched will still get their mail ballot, along with a letter advising the voter their ballot will not be counted unless they provide documentation proving their identity.
The mixup can be attributed to typos introduced by the voter or included in the county data, or stubborn folks who, for instance, insist on applying for a mail ballot using a nickname that differs from their legal name (like Steve vs. Steven), Feaser said.
Still, the report is already being used by Mastriano, who repeatedly cited faulty numbers of mail ballots to discredit the 2020 election, to attempt to cast doubt on this year’s results.
“There’s just too many shenanigans,” Mastriano said in an Oct. 27 radio interview. “You know, we saw them overstep … in 2020 and once again they’re trying to. There’s no COVID cover for them to run under, and so they need to be reined in, and we’re never going to do that.”
Ryan, who Mastriano has announced would be his transition chair should he win, told Spotlight PA that he hadn’t discussed the letter with Mastriano and added that he’s seen “nothing nefarious” so far. His main concern, he said, was with the Department of State’s internal processes, not fraud, which he said is “an incredibly high standard.”
“I can’t reasonably in one way, shape, or form anticipate all the different ways people want to look at anything on the right or the left,” Ryan said.
Ryan, an accountant, made a similar argument after the 2020 election, when he conducted an inaccurate analysis of the Department of State’s data in an attempt to delay the certification of that election.
In December 2020, he sent a letter to the department, co-signed by some of the same lawmakers who signed his October 2022 letter, falsely claiming that 205,000 more votes were counted than people who actually voted based on his analysis of publicly available voter rolls that had yet to be updated.
Trump even cited the false statistic on Jan. 6 2021 before he asked supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol, where they attempted to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election.
‘Pre-loaded’ drop boxes
Mastriano is also pushing a false claim involving drop boxes for mail ballots.
Last month, the Gateway Pundit — a far-right website known to share misinformation — published a video purportedly showing Centre County election workers preparing a drop box to receive ballots and finding 10 ballots already in the box.
The video was published under the provocative headline that the box was “pre-loaded” with ballots.
Mastriano seemingly referenced the article in his Oct. 27 radio interview.
Boxes are “inspected before they get deployed out to the field, and two of the boxes were opened in one particular county and there was already ballots inside,” Mastriano said. “It’s like, OK guys you’re already cheating before the voting started. I mean how did those ballots get in there and what do we do with them?”
Centre County officials have said the narrative is false, and only includes half of the story.
The county’s dropboxes were installed prior to the May primary, and have remained bolted in place since, Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe told Spotlight PA. The county sent out mail ballots to voters for the general election starting on Oct. 9, but advised that they would only officially “open” drop boxes for use on Oct. 25.
When county election workers went to prepare the boxes for use by unlocking them and adding a bag to catch ballots, they found 18 ballots on the floor of the boxes at two separate locations.
In a statement, the county said those ballots were returned by voters who managed to “subvert the closed and locked deposit slot of the drop box prior to the official opening of the drop boxes.”
Fact-checking website PolitiFact reported that the county received valid mail ballot applications from all 18 voters who dropped off ballots, meaning they were legal ballots.
Those 18 ballots that were returned by drop box early “have been segregated until adjudication at a future public meeting of the Centre County Board of Elections,” the county said in a statement.
State law is completely silent on the specifics of drop boxes and security measures that should be used. It was county policy to open the boxes for use at a specific time, Pipe said. He added that in the future, “there will be a strong recommendation to have the drop box operational prior to ballots going out.”
Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.
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