At a Dec. 2 event in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, former President Donald Trump took to the stage and, once again, waged a war of election disinformation before a crowd of supporters.
The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination encouraged his supporters to monitor the vote in the upcoming 2024 presidential election in three Democratic strongholds that he previously made the epicenter of false voter fraud claims in 2020: Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta.
“So the most important part of what’s coming up is to guard the vote,” Trump said. “And you should go into Detroit and you should go into Philadelphia and you should go into some of these places, Atlanta,” Trump said.
It’s a statement straight out of Trump’s playbook from the 2020 election, when he baselessly claimed that Philadelphia, with its sea of blue voters, should be monitored for rampant voter fraud.
But Trump’s words aren’t rooted in concern for election security. Instead, his airing of conspiracy theories undermine an election system he only likes if he wins, political experts say. And this time, they say, he’s using the same playbook by undermining democracy, spreading falsehoods about people from across the ideological spectrum who are working to ensure the city has safe and fair elections, and endangering the lives of election workers.
The former president has for years pushed blatant falsehoods about elections in Pennsylvania, a swing state that backed Trump by a slim margin in 2016 and boosted Biden to victory in 2020. Philadelphia, with its tendency to vote Democratic, has long been in Trump’s crosshairs. He is currently being prosecuted on charges of attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, and he has fervently clung to a string of election lies about Pennsylvania, including the falsehood that mail-in voting is rife with fraud and that pro-Trump poll watchers have been turned away from polling sites. Neither of those claims are true, and both have been repeatedly debunked.
Faced with this onslaught of conspiracy theories, disinformation and death threats against themselves and their families since 2020, election officials in Pennsylvania and nationwide have been quitting their jobs.
Close to 70 election directors or assistant directors have left their positions in at least 40 of the state’s 67 counties since January 2020, said Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt during a U.S. Senate committee hearing on threats to election administration in November. While some of those departures include planned retirements, that number represents a higher turnover rate than the years prior to 2020, he said.
“In addition to threats of physical violence, these election officials also have been subjected to frivolous lawsuits intended to harass or financially ruin them as they perform the public service of counting votes,” Schmidt said.
“Such stresses have, undoubtedly, contributed to the remarkable turnover in local election officials that we’ve seen across the nation since 2020,” Schmidt continued. “Understandably, some of these officials have decided that a job that requires hard work and offers modest pay is hardly worth death threats to themselves and their families.”
The disinformation Trump continues to spread about election integrity has also exacerbated the growing political chasm between Democrats and Republicans, elected officials and leaders of good government groups in Pennsylvania told the Pennsylvania Independent.
“I think when you have this kind of an atmosphere, I do think it not only corrodes faith in our democracy from voters, but it also contributes to a poisonous and hyper partisan atmosphere,” Philip Hensley-Robin, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “And I think when you have some legislators or electors who are engaged in a scheme to overturn the election based on these lies, it’s pretty hard to come back the next day and work together on school funding. The ways in which this impacts governing and normal functioning of governmental institutions can’t be downplayed.”
Following the 2020 election, some GOP elected officials from Pennsylvania tried to overturn the 2020 election results in the state and other Republicans adamantly pushed the lie that the election was stolen, in addition to a long list of other election-related conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, election deniers continue to hold office throughout the state – including Republican state Sen. and failed gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. The former Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol found that Mastriano had paid to transport people to the attempted coup and was on Capitol grounds during the insurrection.
Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from Philadelphia, said Trump’s statements fuel deadly extremism.
“We do not minimize the former president’s ability to spread misinformation, lies and to create deadly situations that compromise our democracy,” McClinton said in an interview. “I will never forget not only what occurred on the sixth of January, but how many people continue to diminish that deadly, violent, bloody insurrection.
“I do not minimize the former president’s ability to cause these types of controversies and to undermine our nation as we know it,” McClinton continued. “So I make every effort to be clear and explicit about how important it is that the big ‘D’ democracy is always protected and defended, and that our right to vote is protected.”
It’s that idea of protecting the vote that leaders from groups like Common Cause Pennsylvania and Committee of Seventy, both nonpartisan, good government organizations, said they have been focusing on – and will continue to do so as the 2024 presidential election nears.
Common Cause runs what the group calls an “election protection program,” which works to dispel election disinformation, trains nonpartisan election volunteers and poll monitors, and offers a nonpartisan election hotline where people can report any issues they have while voting.
Committee of Seventy works to combat election misinformation by, among other measures, providing poll watcher information sessions and participating in a coalition of advocates in Pennsylvania that meets regularly to discuss election administration, including dispelling disinformation.
“To me, the most important thing that can happen is the dissemination of accurate information, and that’s a partnership or collaboration between media sources and media outlets like yours, and trusted messengers, elections officials, poll workers, maybe department of states – those folks that actually have their hands in elections, their boots are on the ground in delivering elections,” Jeff Greenburg, Committee of Seventy’s senior advisor on election administration, told the Pennsylvania Independent. Greenburg served as the director of elections in Pennsylvania’s Mercer County from 2007 to 2020.
Greenburg and his colleagues are deeply committed to fighting disinformation, from Trump or any other source. Still, the former election administrator knows that the disinformation and conspiracy theories that have been pushed about the 2020 election for years have wielded deep damage.
“There is a siloed, in my opinion, siloed group of folks who do not want to acknowledge what I would like to say are the facts,” Greenburg said. “They do not want to acknowledge the process. They do not want to acknowledge that this is how elections work. They do not want to acknowledge that an innocent mistake is not somebody trying to disenfranchise a specific party of voters.”
“It’s disheartening to think that there is a percentage of the population that you could say, ‘The sky is blue,’ and they would say, ‘No, it isn’t.’ And that’s where it gets hard. That’s the frustrating part. Everybody is trying to figure out the secret sauce for breaking through that barrier, and that’s a barrier that we did not have, in my mind, for the overwhelming part of the population five years ago.”