Doug Mastriano supporters are flooding Pa. courts with baseless recount petitions in the governor’s race
PHILADELPHIA — Doug Mastriano lost by a lot.
But some of his supporters wrongly believe the results are inaccurate, and they think they’ve found a way to do something about it. So now election denial groups are flooding Pennsylvania courts with petitions seeking to force hand recounts under a little-known provision of state election law.
It’s not clear the effort will succeed in requiring counties to retally their votes — some courts have already thrown out the requests — and they certainly won’t give Mastriano, the defeated Republican nominee for governor, the 781,000 votes by which he lost to Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro. Recounts change election results very little, if at all.
But the baseless efforts threaten to sow confusion about the validity of this month’s election, tie up state courts, and disrupt officials’ ongoing work to audit and certify results by Monday’s deadline. It’s the latest front for an election denial movement that helped lift Mastriano to prominence, and has repeatedly tried to find and exploit vulnerabilities in the state’s election system.
The groups — organizing over social media and some claiming they are working in conjunction with Mastriano’s campaign — filed more than 100 petitions in at least a dozen counties over the last week, according to interviews and court records. Elections officials said they heard of at least 17 more counties where petitions have been filed and records weren’t immediately available.
The petitions largely follow a similar format — and in many cases use the same boilerplate legal document with blank fields for individual filers to complete.
“These orchestrated moves to delay certification of the vote at the county level are a deliberate attempt to flout the will of the people as expressed in the election results,” the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, said in a statement.
A precinct’s results can be recounted under state election law if three voters from the precinct pay $50 and file a petition in county court saying they believe “fraud or error” occurred there.
The provision is rarely used. In the past, it has triggered recounts primarily in small, local races, said Democratic elections lawyer Adam Bonin, who has used it in razor-thin races for school board and township commissioner.
“For races that are actually incredibly close — we’re talking about single-digit races for local office — in those circumstances you do want to make sure that every machine’s results were transcribed accurately, that every paper ballot was scanned correctly by the machine, and there were no accidental errors in arithmetic,” Bonin said.
But some elections officials have worried for years that bad-faith actors could attempt to weaponize the law in statewide or national elections. Word started to spread last week among county elections officials that election denial activists were using recount petitions in an organized way for the first time on a large scale.
“It’s their latest bright idea,” one county elections director told The Inquirer, calling it a “merry-go-round of nonsense.”
In Bucks County, the onslaught started last Thursday, and within a day 18 recount petitions had been filed. Voters filed 12 in Allegheny County on Friday. Montgomery County received 37 in a span of two days. Chester 11. And in Berks County, a group calling itself the Pennsylvania Liberty Fund said it organized 30 more.
“It’s a lot of the same groups and same individuals … they’re finding things in the law and they’re using it to bog us down,” said Sean D. Drasher, the elections director for Lebanon County, which has recount petitions in five precincts. They were all dropped off at the same time by one person, Drasher said.
Few of the voters who filed recount petitions were willing to discuss it, or whether they were working with organized groups. Those that did cited vague concerns about voting machines and poll workers.
Barbara Canete, a Bucks County Republican committee person who filed a recount petition in Bristol Township, said she heard about the effort through “grassroots groups” that had been preparing for months. Like most petitions reviewed by The Inquirer, Canete’s sought a hand recount of the governor’s race specifically, though some also requested recounts in other races.
“Behind the scenes, I think there are things happening that aren’t really on the up and up,” she said.
Signs of broader organizing have proliferated online and quickly spread among conservative groups on social media.
A Facebook group called “We The People of Columbia County PA” posted a “call to action” last week seeking recruits for recount petitions in that Northeastern Pennsylvania county. It said Audit the Vote PA, an organization that has repeatedly peddled election conspiracy theories and allied itself with Mastriano, would reimburse voters for the $50 filing fee when possible. Audit the Vote’s cofounder Karen Taylor filed her own recount petition in Westmoreland County.
The Facebook post, which was deleted this week, also encouraged voters to email an address associated with Mastriano’s campaign for links to the required forms. The Mastriano campaign did not respond to questions about its involvement.
In Bucks County, the conservative group “Right for Bucks” hosted a virtual event this month with Audit the Vote seeking recruits to participate in an unspecified “election challenge.” It later provided boilerplate recount petition forms on its website.
Most local Republican Party officials have steered clear of publicly endorsing the recount push, with some dismissing it as a fringe idea. But in Berks County, the local GOP committee is openly backing the effort.
“No one is alleging the 2022 election is stolen,” party chairman Clay Breece said in a statement that also sought donations to fund the work. “We are asking for a court order to open the ballot boxes so the paper ballots are manually counted by human beings to verify that the machines are working as advertised.”
But some of the most persistent and pernicious attacks on Pennsylvania’s election system, officials and experts say, are the ones couched as simply seeking transparency. They can erode trust in the system, and recount and audit requests, when organized, can overwhelm elections offices.
Public records requests poured into county elections offices this summer, which one official likened to a “denial-of-service” attack that tries to crash a web server by overloading it with traffic. The wave of recount petitions feels like the latest front in that, elections officials said.
“While it sounds like it’s a very good way to keep an eye on government,” Drasher said, “it’s also a good way to be unaccountable and file paperwork harassing county governments.”
Local elections officials have already counted the results, checked their work and resolved any inconsistencies, recounted a sample of ballots as required by state law, and are conducting a statewide “risk-limiting audit” that’s considered the gold standard method of verifying election results.
County courts have yet to rule on the vast majority of recount petitions. But the few that have come before judges so far haven’t fared well.
A judge in Butler County threw out several recount petitions Wednesday, county solicitor H. William White III said. Three of the petitions that were submitted by voters who’d served as poll workers and signed off on their polling place’s results just days before they filed recount petitions alleging unspecified “fraud or error” in the precincts they worked in.
And a ruling Monday in Forest County might foreshadow a broader rejection of petitions across the state.
Common Pleas Court Judge Maureen A. Skerda dismissed two petitions there, citing language in the law that requires voters seeking to force a recount to either provide specific evidence of fraud or error, or to file petitions in every precinct where the election was held. That means petitions filed in the governor’s race with no specific fraud allegations would have to be filed in every one of the thousands of voting precincts across the state.
Mastriano, who conceded defeat five days after Election Day, lost by almost 15 percentage points.
“We’re way, way, way outside the margin of error, and these are just frivolous requests from people who can’t accept the results of an election,” said Northumberland County Clerk Nathan Savidge, a Republican. “Soon-to-be Gov. Shapiro blew Mastriano out of the water.”