How Pa. election misinformation helped inspire an insurrection, investigations, and policies

The Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack and conversations around voting law changes were partially inspired by the same thing: disproven allegations of widespread problems and fraud.

Pro-Trump insurrectionists storm the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Pro-Trump insurrectionists storm the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

This story originally appeared on WITF.

Pennsylvania’s Republican-led legislature put the state’s election system front and center in 2021, a year that was kicked off with an attack on the U.S. Capitol by people supporting former President Donald Trump. 

Video evidence from the attack shows many who disrupted the peaceful transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6 believed false claims that the 2020 election in states like Pennsylvania was rife with fraud and malfeasance.

The U.S. Department of Justice is tracking down those who participated in the attack. More than 700 people, including at least 65 from Pennsylvania, have been charged in connection to the riot — some as recently as this month.

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U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler is overseeing the arrests in central Pa. He said based on statutes of limitation, the FBI has five years to find and charge participants.

“It’s the largest criminal investigation of its type in the history of the Department of Justice, just the volume of cases and the level of investigation that’s been needed,” Brandler said in a May interview.

Bruce Brandler poses for a photo in his office
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Bruce Brandler poses for a photo at his office in Harrisburg on May 28, 2021. (Sam Dunklau/WITF)

Among the high-profile arrests were Riley June Williams of Harrisburg, who was charged with stealing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop, and Samuel Lazar of Ephrata, who allegedly maced Capitol police officers.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin County) chartered buses for himself and constituents to attend a rally on Jan. 6, at which former President Trump urged attendees to “fight like hell” against the Congressional election certification taking place. Later in the day, videos show, Mastriano walked past police lines with protestors headed for the Capitol. The Republican senator has said he did not participate in any violence.

Recently, a U.S. House Select committee investigating the attack has asked U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R, PA-10) to provide more detail on his alleged role. Evidence gathered by a separate U.S. Senate investigation connects him to White House talks about overturning election results.

Perry has said he will not cooperate with the panel’s request. Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D, MS-2) says the panel just wants more information. While it’s unclear whether those probing the Jan. 6 attack can subpoena a sitting member of Congress, Thompson has signaled such a move is not out of the question.

“Nobody’s off limits. We will be on an ongoing basis issuing subpoenas to various individuals around the country,” Thompson told CBS’ Face the Nation in October.

State lawmakers zero in on elections

Back in Pa., state lawmakers repeatedly said constituent concerns motivated them to try for broad policy changes aimed at restoring “trust” in election procedures. Legislatures in other states where the GOP holds a majority said the same thing.

“Trust means that the integrity of the election process from start to finish is beyond reproach,” State Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia) said during a floor speech in June.

Yet those “election integrity” issues arose from Trump’s election-fraud lie, which began in the summer of 2020 and led to multiple post-election lawsuits in Pa. and elsewhere. ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Vic Walczak, who followed court challenges crafted around a number of those concerns, said judges determined long ago that none of them held water.

“Voters who brought most of those challenges were given every opportunity to prove that these problems were real, and they came up with nothing. Zippo. Zilch-o,” he said.

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Indeed, multiple court rulings, two state-mandated audits of nearly every Pennsylvania county, and election experts and officials of both parties all concluded the results of the 2020 election were accurate.

Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said the May primary was carried out well, aside from a number of minor technical glitches that were nearly all resolved on primary day and none of which affected the outcome. By Election Night in November, Degraffenreid told reporters that contest had gone smoothly as well.

Veronica Degraffenreid speaks with members of the media from a podium
Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid speaks with members of the media during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

“We had no major or widespread incidents to report,” she said.

Yet Trump’s false claims that last fall’s election was stolen have persisted well into this year. Trump rehashed that lie as recently as this month during a stump speech in Texas.

That has kept the conversation relevant among Pennsylvania’s conservative voter base and applied steady pressure on the state’s Republican legislative leaders, many of whom are either up for re-election this fall or who are trying for higher office, like Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre), who is running to be the GOP’s pick for governor.

Those leaders tried to relieve that pressure in the spring with two committee-led investigations of the 2020 election in the House and Senate. Both panels stressed that their efforts would be aimed at improving future contests rather than trying to find past wrongdoing.

Each produced a nearly 100-page report based on testimony from a broad range of experts that suggested a number of changes to the election system. Those reports in part suggested fixing election infrastructure issues like increasing the time counties have to sort and process mail ballots and getting voter rolls to update in real time.

Lawmakers then approved a House bill implementing many of those ideas, but because it included an idea that would have made voters show identification each time they vote, instead of just when they register, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed it.

“I understand that they [Gov. Wolf’s office] may not like some provisions, but you have to have a discussion,” Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), the bill’s sponsor, said following Wolf’s rejection. “I think it [his opposition] was a huge disservice to voters, particularly counties that were looking for a lot of these changes to help administer elections.”

After Wolf signaled he’d reconsider his stance on voter ID, Grove brought the bill back in the fall with some minor changes: on top of the ideas already being offered, the state would reimburse counties for election administration costs, but only if they had most of their votes counted within six hours after polls close.

That measure appears to be inspired by a Trump campaign talking point that results should be known on Election Night, which rarely happens. The logistics involved in ballot counting mean it’s routine for counting to continue past election night. The idea that vote counting after Election Day indicates fraud was a key part of Trump’s election-fraud lie.

The Senate probes further

While Grove’s bill is making its way through the legislature again, the Senate’s Republican majority has been standing up a separate election investigation since late August.

Corman, the chamber’s president pro tem, said the probe’s aim is to “find any flaws in the system that could be exploited by bad actors and take action to correct those flaws through legislative changes to our Election Code.”

At the time, Republican Sens. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) and Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) opposed the effort because both believed it was rooted in Trump allies’ election fraud conspiracy theories.

It’s also similar to those in other states.

Sen. Cris Dush (R-Cameron), who’s leading the Senate’s investigation, traveled to Arizona over the summer to witness an election “audit” that had been commissioned by that state’s Senate. That effort was widely panned by election experts and even the Department of Justice, and actually confirmed President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory there.

Sen. Cris Dush speaks during a hearing
Chairman of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, speaks during a hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Three other politically conservative groups have been investigating Wisconsin’s 2020 election, including one that’s being led by one of the state’s former Supreme Court justices. One of those groups concluded this month there was “no evidence of widespread voter fraud,” though it did heavily criticize the handling of Wisconsin’s election.

Jon Lewis, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Program on Extremism, said people behind those probes want to do more than just improve election systems.

“There are these spaces where we’re continuing to see direct involvement by individuals who seek to subvert democracy, through their words, through their actions, and through the narratives they’re embracing,” Lewis said.

The Pa. Senate’s probe is stalled because of a lawsuit brought by Democrats and advocacy groups like the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Both argued before a Commonwealth Court panel this month that the GOP is improperly trying to get voter driver’s license and partial social security numbers from the Department of State.

Walczak, the ACLU of Pa.’s legal director, told reporters before oral arguments that there could be consequences if the state releases that info.

“Those are effectively the code[s] that you need to be able to ask for an absentee ballot or to go in and make changes to your voter registration,” he said. “So there is the possibility for serious mischief here.”

Commonwealth Court is not expected to rule in the case for several more months, meaning the Senate’s probe will likely persist well into 2022.


Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack

As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.

Reps. Grove (R-York) and White (R-Philadelphia) are among the several dozen lawmakers who signed a letter asking Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral college vote. Sen. Corman (R-Centre) signed a separate letter urging the body to delay certifying that vote.

In October, Corman said he accepts Biden’s victory. But he maintains an ongoing election investigation being led by Senate Republicans is warranted.

That is all despite no evidence that would call those results into question. This supported the election-fraud lie, which led to the attack on the Capitol.

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