This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Fewer than half of the local candidates identified by Votebeat and Spotlight PA as having alleged fraud in elections or expressed doubts about election security won their primaries in mid-May. But a majority of those who did are now expected to win their races in November, putting them in a position to shape how their counties run the 2024 elections.
Out of those 18 county commissioner and county council candidates who won their primaries, all of whom are Republican, eight went so far as to say the 2020 election had been stolen from former President Donald Trump, was fraudulent, or otherwise said there is a conspiracy to steal elections.
The primary election results have not yet been certified, and write-in or provisional ballots could impact some outcomes, such as thin margins in Huntingdon and Potter Counties.
Trump is a leading candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination for president. He, and other candidates, have repeatedly shown they are willing to continue claiming elections are tainted with fraud, even without evidence. That means county commissioners and other local officials in critical swing states such as Pennsylvania could again face pressure to support such claims, especially those who have signaled they are open to supporting them.
In light of that, experts say it’s good news that a majority of the local candidates who promoted false claims and conspiracy theories about elections did not win.
“It felt as if voters in some places clearly prioritized what was important to them in terms of their county leaders, particularly in some of those counties where their commissioners had engaged in election conspiracy theories,” said Jeff Greenburg, a former election director in Mercer County who now works as a senior advisor on election administration for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Committee of Seventy. “So I think that, in and of itself, was a positive.”
Still, some did win. And most of the 18 winning candidates won primaries in counties where Republicans have a registration advantage over Democrats, meaning those candidates are favorites to win in November as well.
In three counties — Butler, Lancaster, and Schuylkill — candidates who have alleged fraud in elections or expressed doubts about election security are likely to make up a majority of the board of commissioners.
Commissioners determine the locations of voting precincts, set election budgets, hire election directors, and — until state law changes or courts rule differently — make consequential decisions about the rules voters follow, such as whether they can submit a mail ballot via a drop box or if they’re given an opportunity to fix a flawed mail ballot.
Their beliefs about elections will guide those decisions.
Take Lackawanna County Commissioner Chris Chermak, who said mail ballots and drop boxes are convenient but “another way to cheat the system.” Another, Ray D’Agostino, an incumbent Republican commissioner in Lancaster County, has suggested that allowing voters to fix signature and date errors on their mail ballots is a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko has repeatedly boosted Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulently won and has helped to organize other activists for the cause.
“I got some good news,” he told a crowd last spring while trying to mobilize an army of poll watchers alongside Trump ally Cleta Mitchell. “Donald Trump did not lose Pennsylvania. He did not lose Pennsylvania.”
Trump did in fact lose Pennsylvania.
Marian Schneider, senior voting rights policy counsel at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said she’s encouraged that only 18 such candidates won, and believes some of those aren’t assured of victory in November, particularly in counties such as Lancaster, where voter demographics have shifted.
“So the message I want to convey is people really need to understand who is on the ballot and go out and vote,” she said.
Many fall short
At least one current election director is breathing a sigh of relief after Tuesday’s results.
Melanie Ostrander, who runs elections in far-western Washington County, recently told Bloomberg News that her position could be at risk, depending on the primary results.
Ashley Duff — who led a canvassing effort in that county on behalf of Audit the Vote PA, an election conspiracy group — had long been the main promoter of conspiratorial claims of voter fraud there. After regularly tussling with Ostrander in public meetings, she decided to run for office.
Audit the Vote PA boosted her bid, but she nonetheless came up short.
“It’s always concerning when a new board comes in, but thankfully the election deniers didn’t win,” Ostander said after the results came in. “It’s good for the county, because [commissioners] will have control over 2024.”
Meanwhile, in nearby Butler County, incumbent Commissioners Kimberly Geyer and Leslie Osche retained their seats. Both have expressed doubts about election security and went so far as to order a partial hand recount of the 2020 election last August, but they faced primary opponents with more extreme positions.
They include Zach Scherer, the 20-year-old leader of a Butler County “patriot” group allied with Audit the Vote PA who was recently featured in the New York Times and has denied the legitimacy of Biden’s win.
Scherer — whose Facebook posts falsely claim that election results are controlled by the government and are “all preselected” — told Votebeat and Spotlight PA that his position on elections factored into his loss, though he believes the primary reason was his association with a school director caught up in a scandal.
“I think there’s probably a good possibility that [voters] are trying to move past the election integrity side of things,” said Scherer.
In Lancaster County, one of three where people who have alleged fraud in elections or expressed doubts about election security are likely to make up a majority of the board of commissioners, there have already been concerns and lawsuits.
Incumbent Commissioner Josh Parsons, who won his primary, is a longtime critic of Act 77, the state law that allowed no-excuse mail voting. Parsons and D’Agostino, another Republican commissioner who also won his primary, have together made several controversial decisions on voting policy.
Last spring, the ACLU sued Lancaster County for not informing voters ahead of time that it would remove the county’s only drop box. The commissioner’s office under Parsons and D’Agostino has also frequently sparred with the Department of State: Last summer the county was one of three that refused to include undated ballots in its primary results certification and was subsequently sued by the department.
That lawsuit sparked concerns that in the future, county boards might refuse to certify results when they disagree with the rules for or outcome of an election. A majority of two commissioners could decline to do so.
The county lost both cases.
Election skeptics are also likely to comprise a majority in Schuylkill County, though it is less clear how they’ll approach election issues.
Larry Padora is one of the two Republican candidates advancing. He said on Facebook that he “believe[s] there was fraud” in the 2020 election and knew “for a fact” Democrats cheated. He beat incumbent George Halcovage, for whom Votebeat and Spotlight PA did not find similar statements.
If successful in the general election, Padora would join incumbent Commissioner Barron Hetherington, who signed an “election integrity declaration” in 2022 which asserted without evidence that “the move to mail-in and drop-box voting in Pennsylvania has seriously undermined the integrity of our electoral process.”
Greenburg, of the Committee of Seventy, points out that criticizing elections as a candidate is one thing, and being responsible for running them is another.
“Once many of these people are in their positions and they learn about the intricacies of administering elections, that will help mitigate many issues, and the courts will act as a backstop to any issues down the road,” he said. “It’s completely different looking from the outside criticizing elections and those who manage them [compared to] when you are the person who is responsible for managing those elections.”
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