In his recent editorial, Gov. Tom Wolf accused Republicans in the state Senate who are pursuing an investigation of the 2020 election of “acting to undermine election security in Pennsylvania,” “tearing down our democracy,” and “tearing our Commonwealth apart.” This sort of overheated rhetoric ignores the legitimate concerns that many Pennsylvanians of all political stripes have about the way the 2020 election was administered. So let’s turn down the volume on self-serving political rhetoric and examine what really happened in 2020.
With the advent of no-excuse mail-in balloting, the 2020 election was a seismic shift from the past. We went from a system that relied on the sanctity of the voting booth to one that is inherently messy. In the voting booth, you are alone. Unlike with mail-in voting, there is no opportunity with in-person voting for anybody to fill out your ballot for you, exert any influence or pressure on you, or take possession of your ballot. There is also no opportunity for your ballot to fall into the wrong hands, unlike when ballots are mailed out to millions of addresses using imperfect and outdated voter rolls. This does not mean that widespread fraud is necessarily part of this new process, but it does mean that the officials administering the 2020 election should have bent over backwards to demonstrate transparency and the appearance of fairness, so that the public would have confidence in the results of this new system.
Instead of working to promote fairness and increase voter confidence, however, many of our officials did just the opposite in 2020. Let’s start with the state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Three days before Election Day, Shapiro issued a public statement that “Trump is going to lose.” Yes, you read that right – the person responsible for enforcing state election law gave the public the impression that the fix was in. It would be hard to imagine a more irresponsible statement by a public official. Gov. Wolf did nothing to correct this statement by the man that he hopes will be his handpicked successor. In light of Shapiro’s statement, why would any Pennsylvanian believe the election was handled appropriately? Most don’t.
Much of what we saw in Philadelphia and other Democratic areas of the state reflected Wolf’s and Shapiro’s partisan approach. For example, funded with controversial grants from entities associated with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Philadelphia announced the opening of “Satellite Election Offices” and advertised them as “early voting,” despite early voting being prohibited under Pennsylvania law. When Republicans sought transparency by having poll watchers present inside these offices, the city excluded them – arguing there was no “voting” going on despite the offices being advertised as polling places. Similarly, Philadelphia counted mail-in ballots at the Convention Center, but kept observers far behind barricades, where they could not meaningfully observe anything. When the people who run elections – as well as those responsible for enforcing our election laws – behave like partisan operators, regular citizens don’t trust the outcome.
Some Democratic counties, including Philadelphia, actively encouraged illegal “ballot curing.” In a gross breach of the Election Code, Philadelphia election workers were reviewing mail ballots as they arrived and then contacting voters to correct or “cure” any perceived defects (such as lack of signature, lack of address or lack of internal secrecy envelope). Some, but not all, counties set up unmanned drop boxes, which presented opportunities for ballot harvesting (it is illegal to drop off somebody else’s ballot without that person filling out a declaration of assistance). A photo even surfaced of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney dropping off more than one ballot. Wolf and Shapiro did nothing to punish or deter this illegal practice, but instead encouraged it by accusing Republicans of illegal surveillance when they tried to catch people in the act.
Election fraud does happen; it is not some figment of the imagination, and it was happening in Pennsylvania well before 2020. As U.S. Attorney, I prosecuted ballot-stuffing defendants in Philadelphia who had falsified votes for various Democratic candidates in numerous elections. Unfortunately, Wolf and Shapiro did not share this desire to enforce election laws or implement methods to improve transparency this past November. Instead, they allowed their partisan preference to undermine faith in the election, particularly in areas of Pennsylvania with an already poor track record of election integrity.
The best way to encourage more people to vote is to have an election system in which people have faith. That will occur only when we enact popular, common-sense reforms (like voter ID) and, just as importantly, when we have election officials dedicated to serving transparency, fairness and the law instead of serving their own self-interest. When I’m governor, we’ll make it easy to vote and hard to cheat. If Tom Wolf is worried about “tearing our commonwealth apart,” he should take a look in the mirror.