Capitol siege lays bare GOP electoral misinformation in Harrisburg

By: and - January 10, 2021 7:49 am

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, addresses a crowd of Trump supporters at the Pennsylvania state Capitol on Saturday, Nov. 7, the day the presidential race was called for Democrat Joe Biden (Capital-Star photo).

As President Donald Trump egged on his supporters and called for a “fight” before they marched to the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, he cited a false statistic that traces its origins back to Harrisburg.

“Pennsylvania had 205,000 more votes than you had voters,” Trump falsely claimed.

The president’s false claim can be traced back to a Dec. 28 letter signed by 17 of the state’s Republican lawmakers, who used incomplete data to claim that the certification of Pennsylvania’s election results was ”premature, unconfirmed, and in error.”

The Pennsylvania Department of State responded to the letter, which originated from Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, the next day, laying out the flaws in their methodology.

But that response was too late. Earlier that morning, Trump had tweeted the findings out to his millions of followers, claiming it as evidence in his futile effort to deny his loss to President-elect Joe Biden.

Those efforts reached a violent crescendo Wednesday, when Trump backers stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress was confirming Biden’s electoral win. By the end of the day, five Americans were dead and the building strewn with rubble.

The violent takeover of the capitol drew condemnation from lawmakers in both parties, and calls for a full accounting of how citizens ended up forcing their way into the seat of American democracy.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth,” former GOP presidential candidate and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said Wednesday evening.

And the demand for truth is also beginning to come from legislative Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania, where some elected officials amplified the misinformation campaign that reached its violent conclusion Wednesday.

“I do believe words have consequences,” Republican state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, of Washington County, told the Capital-Star. “And those consequences were on full display” at the U.S. Capitol.

The crescendo

Since November, legislative Republicans have been at the center of challenges to Pennsylvania’s election results, arguing as recently as Monday that Congress should delay certifying them to allow more time for lawmakers to investigate election administration.

“A majority of the state Senate is troubled by the many inconsistencies that happened in our Commonwealth during the 2020 election,” reads a letter that 21 Senate Republicans sent to GOP leaders in the U.S. House and Senate Monday, mirroring one sent by House lawmakers in December.

The letter went on to allege “numerous unlawful violations” by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and the “rogue state Supreme Court” — arguments that Senate Republicans are raising in federal court right now, claiming that the state’s top election officials and highest court overstepped their role by issuing guidance and directives to counties ahead of the Nov. 3 race. 

Pennsylvania Republicans have been unified in their criticisms of Boockvar and the Supreme Court, and in their pledges to reexamine the state’s new vote-by-mail law when they return to Harrisburg this month.

What has been less consistent are their responses to Trump-fueled claims that his electoral victory in Pennsylvania was stolen by voter fraud. 

A number of lawmakers, including state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, publicly embraced Trump’s mistruths. In a series of media interviews and public appearances, Mastriano and others endorsed Trump’s claims that his electoral victory in Pennsylvania was stolen by election fraud.

Republican caucus leaders in the House and Senate have not explicitly embraced Trump’s claims of a stolen election. 

But they have also stopped short of publicly denouncing them, saying that pressure from their constituents required them to launch oversight actions in the period following the vote count. 

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, whose office did not respond to a request for comment Friday, told the New York Times in December that her house would be bombed if she blocked efforts to stall the electoral college vote. 

Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the Speaker’s actions were all within the lawful process to object to an election result.

He also argued that no caucus member had any culpability for Wednesday. 

“I don’t think Trump said, ‘Did you see Frank Ryan’s numbers? March on the Capitol,’” Straub told the Capital-Star.

He also acknowledged that Cutler has heard from lawmakers who disagreed with Ryan’s research.

Those complaints, formerly quiet, are becoming louder. Some Republicans lawmakers, such as Mihalek, even drew a line between their colleagues’ false claims and the extremist Trump supporters’ assault on the U.S. Capitol Wednesday.

Mihalek, in her second term representing a suburban Pittsburgh district, said a “vocal minority” of colleagues have pushed a false narrative about the stolen election.

“It has been repeated so many times and people don’t know where to go for accurate info, so why would you question your local state representative or state senator?” Mihalek said. But, she added, “I’m afraid that trust has been breached.”

Rep. Frank Farry, R-Bucks, like Mihalek, agreed that constituents had been misled.

In particular, he expressed frustration with the theory that the General Assembly could undo the presidential ballots of millions of Pennsylvanians.

“Now that the electors have been certified in D.C., clearly the Legislature didn’t have the authority,” Farry told the Capital-Star. “But that’s not what some people have been saying over the past nine weeks.”

Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, disputed the notion that elected officials fanned the misinformation campaign that culminated in the storming of the Capitol.

“I’m not going to connect [the Jan. 6 events] to any elected official,” Kocher said. “Our responsibility is that moving forward, we will look at election integrity and restore public confidence.”

She said Corman stands by a statement he made to reporters on Nov. 4, saying he had “no reason” to doubt the accuracy or security of the vote count that was then underway. But she said constituents continue to call the senator’s office with concerns that the election had been compromised. 

“I know that the people we hear from do not believe or have confidence in our election system at this point in time,” Kocher said.  “We need to work to ensure that our voters can have confidence.”

Asked whether these voters should have confidence in the state’s elections, Kocher said “yes, moving forward” — once the legislature makes changes to Act 77. 

But as for the election that took place on Nov. 3? 

“The process has played out and we have a winner,” she said.

A matter of interpretation

Few Republicans accused their colleagues of deliberately trafficking in misinformation. Farry came closest in a Facebook post Thursday.

Farry said he had challenged colleagues “to be truthful, but they are blinded by the rockstar bright lights and their own political ambitions.” He did not call out anyone by name.

Some of the lawmakers involved in the effort to overturn the election have earned huge fan bases. Tens of thousands of people follow Mastriano on Facebook and Parler, a social media site favored by the far-right, and he has become a fixture in pro-Trump media.

Supporters on social media openly speculate about Mastriano, as well as fellow doubter Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, running for higher office in 2022. Diamond has been another of the more vocal proponents of decertifying the 2020 presidential results.

“I started down this path because I was in disbelief at the alleged outcome of the presidential election,” he told his colleagues in a Jan. 2 letter he republished to his personal blog.

Now, he argued, his quest was about the separation of powers.

“I am not certain who won, but I am certain that the election was not entirely above board and that non-legislative actors did everything they could to undermine our authority and to subvert the security of the election,” he added in the letter.

The use of extreme rhetoric isn’t new, noted Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Washington. Harrisburg lawmakers have been trying to “slam dunk” on each other instead of legislate for years, he said. The election misinformation, he said, was a high point in that trend.

He added that he did not fault Ryan for interrogating election data. But if he was in Ryan’s position, he would have gone to the Department of State and asked them to disprove the numbers before going public.

Ryan’s been raising the specter of fraud ever since Election Day, such as in an email to his constituents days after the election.

Speaking to the Capital-Star that week, Ryan clarified what he has termed fraud was “technical issues” with scanners used to process ballots. Describing such issues as fraud made sense from his perspective as an accountant, he added.

“I can’t possibly expect to understand how every person interprets every other word,” Ryan told the Capital-Star after appearing at a “Stop the Steal” rally at the state Capitol.

Ryan did not return a call for comment this week. But a staffer forwarded his debunked voting report and a copy of a 2019 audit of the state’s voter registration system.

In total, the Capital-Star reached out to a dozen GOP lawmakers who had, at various points, tried to delay or deny Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, signed on to the letter urging Congress to delay the electoral college vote, but said he no longer supported a delay after being “sickened” by events at the U.S. Capitol. 

Many other signatories denounced the Capitol attack in public statements, but did not respond to requests for comment throughout the week.

Only one House lawmaker — Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin — responded to specific questions.

Schemel, who signed onto proposals to overturn and object to Pennsylvania’s election results, condemned the violence in Washington D.C. but said in an email that the “events inside the US Capitol are entirely divorced from our efforts.”

“Our laws provide opportunities to object to election outcomes and I have done so to the extent legally possible vis-a-vis the Pennsylvania elections,” Schemel, who signed onto Ryan’s misinformation-filled letter, said.

“Our laws also provide finality to national elections through certification by the U.S. Congress. That has occurred and Joe Biden will be our next president. That is the law and we are a nation of laws,” he concluded.

What’s next

Some Republican interviewed noted that they still had concerns with how the election was run, and saw the need to reform state law.

Many also believed that their colleagues were within their rights as elected officials to say what they wanted.

“I think they honestly believe what they were doing was following the law,” Ortitay said. “That’s where they were at, I can’t fault them for that. They are free to do that, but there are consequences.”

Democrats have already called for Mastrinao to resign and face investigation for participating in the Capitol protest and airing misinformation about the November election. 

Corman said Thursday that the caucus had no grounds to discipline Mastriano. Asked for comment Friday, Mastriano’s statement referred the Capital-Star to a statement he issued Wednesday, denouncing violence at the Capitol and saying he did not set foot in the building.

Straub, Cutler’s spokesperson, said the House did not have a position on disciplinary action, and was “not sure what actions the Speaker can take against people who said certain things.”

For her part, Mihalek isn’t sure if much will change, even after the death and destruction in Washington.

“We’ve continued to get threatening emails and phone calls, saying things along the lines of ‘what you saw yesterday is mild in nature to what we’ll bring to Harrisburg if the election isn’t changed,’” Mihalek told the Capital-Star.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.