Bipartisan coalition discuss accountability in the 2022 political cycle, tracking election deniers

By: - February 5, 2022 4:00 am

Committee of Seventy CEO and President Al Schmidt, a former Republican Philadelphia County Commissioner, speaks during a panel hosted by States United Action. (Screenshot)

For the last year, election officials at every level of government nationwide have felt like it’s “Groundhog Day,” with some people still fixated on the 2020 election and bringing it into current political campaigns.

But with the 2022 political cycle underway, a bipartisan coalition of current and former state and local leaders from across the United States think there’s an opportunity to move on from conspiracy theories and baseless voter fraud claims surrounding the 2020 election by combating misinformation and holding election deniers accountable.

“It feels in many ways like we’re facing the same threats to our elections and our democracy as we were in 2020,” Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action and Massachusetts’ former deputy attorney general, said Wednesday during a panel discussion. “We’re seeing lies and conspiracy theories, threats against election officials, and the now-former president who continues to stoke those flames. But the threat has actually evolved.”

In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled Senate launched an investigation into the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections, with GOP leadership claiming it aims to improve the electoral process. And with a term-limited Democratic governor leaving office next year, a dozen allies of former President Donald Trump, who helped promote unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, are seeking the Republican nomination — a trend seen across the country in the last year.

Arizona spent the last year reviewing the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, where now-President Joe Biden won by a 45,000-vote margin. The former president has also endorsed a swarth of election conspiracy theorists running for elected office in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, and Georgia, who were at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, and have ties to extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers.

“Today, we think about the anti-democracy playbook as follows: Change the rules. Change the referees, so you can change the outcome,” Lydgate said, outlining efforts in state legislatures to pass reform that would “interfere with our free and fair elections” and candidates running on baseless claims of fraud.

States United Action — a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for election integrity — recently launched an online tool, dubbed “Replacing the Refs,” to track 2022 candidates for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state who have rejected the 2020 election results. It’s part of an effort to combat disinformation and hold people accountable, Lydgate said.

“To me, the 2022 election cycle is the opportunity for voters to be very clear about who we are in our country and who we intend to be as a democracy moving forward,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said. “Will we be a nation where people come together and defend democracy, or will we be one that looks the other way and allows it to withdraw on the vine?”

So far, 36 states have elections for governor in 2022.

As of January, at least 51 candidates who promoted false election claims in 2020 are running to be their state’s top executive in 24 states. Out of the 30 total elections for attorney general, at least 11 election deniers are running in 10 states.

And at least 21 are running for secretary of state in 18 states, with 27 total elections nationwide this year.

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, and former UPS executive John Ventre made the list for Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates.

“In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state, and the secretary of state is the one in the commonwealth who has responsibility for overseeing elections, so that’s a very concerning thing,” Al Schmidt, head of the Philadelphia-based reform group Committee of Seventy, said.

Schmidt, a former Philadelphia County Republican commissioner, who received backlash from the former president and threats from his supporters for combating false election claims, said that the 2020 election cycle was the safest and most secure in the commonwealth’s history.

He added that confusion surrounding no-excuse mail-in voting, which passed with bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2019, has been exploited to cast doubt on the electoral process. And now, efforts to repeal Act 77, which provided for no-excuse, universal mail-in voting, are ongoing.

“The ability to exploit the belief that many voters have that they know the results on election night, despite counties being prohibited from even beginning processing those mail-in ballots until election morning, created a lot of opportunity for distrust,” Schmidt added. “I think we’re seeing the consequences of that.”

And with a rise in far-right media outlets, such as the Gateway Pundit and One America News Network, promoting false information and giving election deniers a platform, it’s even easier for voters to get lost in disinformation. The panelists noted that misinformation also “metastasizes into real threats and violent rhetoric targeting our elections and our election officials,” Benson added.

Last week, two candidates in Michigan, told supporters to unplug voting machines if they suspect fraud and instructed them to “lock and load” at polling places on Election Day.

“That’s one example of many that we’ve been living in,” Benson said. “It’s very real — the ways in which misinformation has become the foundation for the hateful rhetoric and violent threats and potentially even violence itself in the future.”

With violent rhetoric surrounding elections, Christine Todd Whitman, co-chair of States United Action and the former Republican governor of New Jersey, said it’s important for voters to know who the election deniers running at the state and local levels are.

“People do tend to look at the federal level; they think everything happens there,” she said. “It doesn’t. For these elections, they may be federal elections, but they are run by the states.”



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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.