Pennsylvania Republican state legislators are proposing an audit of the votes in the 2020 general election, which the state had certified in favor of the Democrats by over 80,000 votes. Republicans are especially concerned with the counting of mail-in ballots. But the GOP should be wary of an election audit.
Pennsylvania approved a law in 2019 with the votes of most Republicans in the GOP-led state legislature to allow no-excuse voting by mail. The coronavirus pandemic encouraged many Pennsylvanians, especially those not supportive of Donald Trump, to apply for no-excuse mail-in ballots for the 2020 election. The new law quickly became problematic and controversial because of the overwhelming number of applications, postal-delivery delays, confusion among voters and election officials, and differences in interpretation of the law among counties, campaigns, and political parties. Under state law, each county has the responsibility to conduct elections and has some degree of discretion in implementing election law based on guidelines from state election officials. But most of these controversies are not the subject of the audit proposed by Pennsylvania Republicans. The process for the counting of mail-in ballots, especially in Philadelphia, is their particular concern.
Contrary to the claims of Democrats and their allies that election fraud is rare, fraud occurs in myriad ways, whether in violation of criminal or civil law. I have helped campaigns discover fraud in nominating petitions for primary ballots and prove it in civil challenges, for example. There is less concern about fraud in the counting of votes by election officials, however, because campaigns and parties are allowed to have observers present during the process. As Kevin Williamson notes, Democrats have flagrantly committed fraud at Philadelphia’s polling places, but there has been no convincing evidence of it in the vote-canvassing by Philly election officials.
The conspiracy theories advanced by some Republicans that Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results were stolen by Democratic election officials fraudulently counting the votes in their party’s favor would have required hundreds of election officials to violate their oaths of office to conspire together to conduct a fraudulent count — under public scrutiny — and then for no one ever to blow the whistle. Conspiracy theorists are not simply reasonably skeptical of any accepted version of events, but rather are cynically certain that version is false. Thus, the possibility that something illegitimate could have happened during the counting of ballots out of view of GOP observers is for them convincing proof that it must have happened. To conspiracy theorists, no evidence that disproves their theory is ever convincing. They interpret the presentation of such evidence as proof only that the individuals providing the evidence must be in on the plot.
Baseless election-fraud allegations by fellow Republicans and conservatives distract from the focus on the various real occurrences of fraud and undermine the credibility of those making fraud allegations. Unfounded fraud claims allow Democrats and their allies too easily to dismiss legitimate concerns about fraud as nothing more than partisan attempts at electoral advantage through “voter suppression.”
Trump, who narrowly carried Pennsylvania in 2016, did not obtain a majority approval rating in pre-election public polls of Pennsylvania voters and never enjoyed a lead over his opponent beyond the margin of error. Although polls are not always accurate predictors of results, after the close results in 2016, the results of 2020 were not surprising. Philadelphia’s election commissioner, Al Schmidt, a Republican who has uncovered election fraud in the mostly Democratic city, declared the 2020 election in the city clean, as only legitimate mail-in votes were counted. Trump’s cybersecurity office, Republican judges, and dozens of GOP members of the House and Senate, including Pennsylvania’s highest elected Republican federal official, Senator Pat Toomey, also found no significant evidence of election fraud or other irregularities.
Fellow Republicans and conservatives should remember that the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee found that one of the reasons foreigners interfere in our politics is to undermine Americans’ confidence in elections. It then follows that Republicans should avoid doing anything that could be contrary to our security similar to what some Democrats did after the results of the 2000 election in Florida, such as baselessly continuing to undermine the legitimacy of the certified election results, despite every recount having confirmed the Bush-Cheney victory and the absence of any evidence of significant fraud or other irregularities. And Republicans should not repeat their recent mistake of undermining the confidence in elections of their own party’s voters that cost the GOP two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia.
Any election audit should be based on reasonable grounds, not an unfounded theory, because taxpayers should never be burdened with the cost of a political point-scoring exercise. But if Pennsylvania Republicans do get their audit, then they should at least avoid the problems Republican officials have identified with the Arizona election audit that is dividing the party there and damaging its public image. The GOP cannot afford any of this in the Keystone State, a large swing state. They should not establish a precedent of a partisan audit conducted by inexperienced auditors that could be used by Democrats to challenge future elections of Republicans. Contrary to how Arizona Republicans are conducting their audit, an audit in Pennsylvania would have to be conducted by recognized election experts, transparently, and with the custody of ballots maintained properly.
However, extreme conspiracy theorists would likely never be satisfied with any conclusive audit finding that confirms the certification of Pennsylvania’s 2020 general election. But unless there is convincing proof of significant fraud or errors, the election results must be accepted by reasonable people as determinative.
Focusing more on protecting the integrity of elections against the many real threats of fraud, without disenfranchising anyone unnecessarily, would better serve Republicans and America by restoring the confidence in elections that is clearly lacking.