Election deniers in the Pennsylvania Legislature threaten democracy - TAI News
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Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Schnecksville, Pa., April 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Joe Lamberti)

Nearly four years after former President Donald Trump lost his 2020 bid for president, the disinformation he and a web of Republican leaders spread about the election remains a potent force within the Pennsylvania state Legislature.

The majority of GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania are election deniers and have pushed the lie that Trump won the 2020 election as well as other election-related disinformation, according to a recent report from States United Action, a nonpartisan group advocating for free and fair elections.

Political experts have deep concerns about the nationwide trend of right-wing lawmakers promoting disinformation in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election and what those ongoing attacks on reality mean for democracy and a more radicalized public.

“Obviously, it’s fairly disastrous to have election deniers in elected office because they have an incredible amount of control,” said Lindsey Miller, the strategic research director at Informing Democracy, a nonprofit that researches and advocates for election integrity.

“State legislators have an incredible amount of control over policies in the state, and they’re aso given more of a platform than the average citizen to be able to spread false claims about the election,” Miller continued.

Division and distrust: Fallout from election denialism

Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton said election denialism in the state Legislature is a threat to democracy.

“And it is an enduring issue in Pennsylvania, especially since 60-plus Republican lawmakers signed a letter urging Congress to object to counting the commonwealth’s electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election — disenfranchising millions of our neighbors,” McClinton continued in a statement prepared for the Pennsylvania Independent. “Not one of these election deniers objected to the vote tallies in their own elections.”

It’s not solely that Pennsylvania lawmakers attempted to overturn the 2020 election that’s the problem, McClinton said. Rather, the continued fallout from this disinformation is further eroding democratic norms, increasing the partisan divide and increasing the chance of politically motivated violence.

“The harm of denialism ranges from deadly insurrections and organized violence to long-term division in our communities,” the speaker said. “When people sow doubt in the integrity of our elections, it discourages voters from participating, weakening our democracy for years to come. Instead of sowing distrust, we ought to be strengthening and celebrating voting. Our democracy only works when people participate.”

But political experts note that election deniers continue to sow distrust in the electoral process, which has led to the departure of election officials. After Trump and other Republican lawmakers began casting doubt on the work being done by election officials prior to and after the 2020 election, threats of violence against election officials soared. In turn, election officials are fearing for their lives and have left the field.

Close to 70 election directors or assistant directors have left their positions in at least 40 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties since January 2020, Secretary of State Al Schmidt told Congress in November 2023. Some of those departures included planned retirements, but Schmidt said the number represents a higher turnover rate than the years prior to 2020.

That exodus, Miller said, can be tied to election denialism.

“In Pennsylvania specifically, the Republicans in the state legislature did a lot of work to do these election audits and cast doubt on the election outcomes, which in turn causes their constituents to lose faith in the integrity of our elections, which causes these constituents to then show up at election-related meetings to continue spreading these conspiracy theories,” Miller said.

That leads to citizens being outraged by false information and taking it out on election officials who they’ve wrongly pinpointed as part of the problem, Miller said.

“So it obviously just is not great for the atmosphere around election integrity itself and trust and faith in our elections and restoring trust, and it also causes them to go after mechanisms of voting,” Miller said.

The coming presidential election

Disinformation experts don’t expect these narratives to change as November’s presidential election nears. Beth Schwanke, a disinformation expert and executive director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, said the country should be prepared for a continued onslaught of false claims that are reminiscent of 2020.

“But what all of these false claims do, no matter what the exact content, is to chip away at trust,” Schwanke wrote in an email to the Pennsylvania Independent. “They chip away at trust between individuals, in institutions, and in democracy. Even if people know not to believe them, they still accelerate distrust and polarization.”

To combat this, Schwanke said the most important thing is for every jurisdiction to focus on running safe and secure elections — something which Pennsylvania’s secretary of state and other local election officials have emphasized is happening.

Elected officials also need to share accurate information about elections, Schwanke said.

“One of the most important things that state government actors can do, executive and legislative, is to be a trusted source of trustworthy information,” she wrote. “But unfortunately, we’ve seen that a lot of political actors have been sources and accelerants of disinformation, particularly around elections.”

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.