Why we need to say no to vigilantism after Election Day too

Pennsylvanians deserve to have every vote calmly counted

From early voting to new election result reporting rules, New Jersey's voting systems have undergone a transformation in the last two years. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

From early voting to new election result reporting rules, New Jersey’s voting systems have undergone a transformation in the last two years. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

(*This commentary was updated at 11:34 a.m. on Monday, 11/7/22 to adjust projections for the number of votes that Pennsylvania Democrats may receive from mail-in ballots.)

By Lara Putnam

Mail-in voting has become a vulnerable target within Pennsylvania’s election integrity. The risk is not voter fraud: the safeguards in place to ensure that only legal voters vote and every vote is counted have never been stronger.

Yet false fraud claims have polarized mail-in ballot use so intensely that disqualifying mail-in votes is now a sure-fire way to disqualify Democratic voters—not just in heavily Democratic areas, but in every county in the state.

Not only does that ensure courtroom battles over the minutiae of election administration. It heightens potential pressure on local officials to disregard court guidance. And that prospect itself incentivizes more false claims about election fraud to be pushed out toward these local leaders and their constituents. 

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That’s exactly what former President Donald Trump did in public tweets and private phone calls in 2020. And in fact, this very summer the counties of Berks, Lancaster, and Fayette refused to certify primary election results including undated mail-ins, refusing to recognize the authority of court rulings then in place.

Only 13 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans describe themselves as “very confident” that state and local officials will run a free and fair election. That’s not just a sad result of past disinformation: it generates future risk.

As of this writing, registered Democrats make up three out of every four main-party voters requesting a mail-in ballot for Pennsylvania’s November election, and requesters’ registration in 2020 and 2021 was highly predictive of candidate choice. So it is already clear that voters who have voted by mail will be decisive in all the state’s key congressional races, as well at least a dozen.

State House and State Senate races.With Doug Mastriano on the ballot for governor, we can expect mail-in ballot usage to be even more polarized. In the May 2022 primary, 43 percent of Democrats who cast votes for Josh Shapiro did so by mail-in ballot. Only 4 percent of the Republicans who cast ballots for Doug Mastriano in the primary chose to vote by mail: the lowest fraction of any of the Republican candidates.

It’s telling that the accusations used by then-President Trump in 2020 targeted the city of Philadelphia, with its African American voter core, giving rise to harassment, even death threats. Those false claims drew on a still-potent cultural legacy that treats political voice as an in-born right for some Americans—implicitly, white ones—but a privilege that must be earned for others—especially, Black Americans.

Belying Trump’s choice of target, in fact the 2020 uptake of mail-in ballots was weakest among Democratic voters in Pennsylvania’s non-white urban cores, a pattern that has held statewide. In 2021, fully 85 percent of statewide Democrats’ net gains from mail-in ballots came from places other than Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the median age of the more than one million voters requesting mail-ins so far for November 2022 is 64. The accurate face of mail-in voting in Pennsylvania is someone’s grandmother in suburban Lancaster.

In last year’s  state Supreme Court race, Democratic candidate Maria McLaughlin netted 425,551 votes from mail-in voters: over 100,000 of them from the 54 counties Donald Trump carried in 2020. The only county where she did not end up with a net gain was Fulton—where she lost mail-ins by a single vote.

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With over 1.4 million mail-in ballots already requested, if the mail-in utilization split this fall echoes 2021, Democrats may net over 650,000 votes from mail-in ballots statewide. The problem isn’t the aggressive litigation over minutiae: our electoral system rests on using courts to decide such disputes.

The problem is the foreseeable risk that county officials—who in their great majority are hard-working, sincere, and Republican—may face pressure to disregard the guidance of the courts, or refuse to count mail-in ballots that have no legal defect but that local vigilante activists believe to be suspect in some way.

National influencers last week began falsely asserting that Pennsylvania’s acting Secretary of State had ordered ballots counted “in defiance of the Supreme Court.”

This claim is metastasizing on social media daily: the functional equivalent of pre-positioning gasoline for a future fire

Everything we know from the breakdown of democracies in other nations underlines this basic fact: to avoid authoritarian cascade, it’s critical that the leaders of all political parties affirm their commitment to shared electoral rules, including the rules regarding who will be the arbiters in cases of dispute. Without that, lawsuits themselves can become a wedge to subvert the rule of law, providing pretext for vigilante action.

More than 60 Pennsylvanians faced criminal charges for participating in the violent assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.We cannot allow the threat of vigilante intervention to become a de facto part of the partisan toolkit. Pennsylvanians deserve to have every vote calmly counted.Lara Putnam is is UCIS Research Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and co-lead of the Southwest PA Civic Resilience Initiative of the Pitt Disinformation Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.