Election-denying 'patriot' groups trying to vote out voting machines across Pa.
HARRISBURG — Across Pennsylvania, conservative activists are trying to stop the usage of electronic voting machines at the behest of former President Donald Trump and his allies who continue to claim without proof the 2020 election was stolen.
Activists began collecting signatures to get a referendum question on the November ballot to stop the use of electronic voting machines, following a directive from Trump and his top supporters, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and former Army intelligence officer Seth Keshel, who have made careers traveling the country to spread false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Now, these "patriot" groups have organized ballot referendum efforts in at least 16 counties, including Butler and Washington.
"That's what we have to do to save our country," Lindell said in a pre-recorded message played at Trump's rally in Wilkes-Barre on Sept. 3.
In the years since the 2020 election, Trump's closest allies have demonized several components of Pennsylvania's election system, such as mail-in voting, ballot drop boxes and now, the use of electronic voting machines. These fears have crept into county government centers all around Pennsylvania and across the country from newly engaged citizens demanding their county commissioners overhaul the state's election system back to a pre-21st century one.
"Stick the machines in the closet and hand-count the paper ballots," wrote Toni Shuppe, a Beaver County resident who leads Audit the Vote PA and is the top organizer in referendum efforts. "Election integrity can only be achieved when the process is transparent. Not having access to what is going on inside the machines decreases transparency and therefore negatively affects the integrity of the electoral process."
Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018 declared that all of Pennsylvania's election systems must be decertified and replaced with ones that produce a paper record that could be checked and verified by the voter.
Wolf took this executive action by recommendation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to prevent government interference in American elections. All of Pennsylvania's election machines needed to be replaced to meet updated security protocols before the 2020 primary election, according to Wolf's directive.
Since then, Pennsylvania has conducted two statewide recounts: One in November 2021 for a Commonwealth Court seat and another in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in May 2022. Both recounts found few changes in vote counts and did not change the outcome of the election.
According to the state election code, any county or municipality can vote by ballot referendum to end the usage of electronic voting machines, according to a provision of the state's election code.
While much of the state's election code was updated in 2019 to include no-excuse mail-in voting, a majority of the state's election laws remain the same — including portions that may be outdated or superseded by federal law.
The 2002 Help America Vote Act — passed after the Florida recount fight in the 2000 presidential election — precludes counties from banning electronic voting machines because it requires that they are used, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled this in 2006, after a number of voters sued Westmoreland County for replacing its lever-style machines with electronic voting machines, as the federal law required, without asking voters.
Still, members are trying to get their referendums on the November ballot, though no group was successful in meeting the early-September deadline. Petitioners in each county needed to collect 10% of the vote total from the last November election. In Butler County, for instance, the local advocates were tasked with collecting about 4,000 signatures. The group collected about 2,400 of those signatures as of Wednesday, said Zach Scherer, the president of Butler PA Patriots.
"I don't really care what this federal act says," Scherer said. "If the people want it on the ballot, let's put it on the ballot."
Scherer wouldn't say whether his group would respect the people's will if voters rejected his referendum.
"It's hard to say," Scherer said. "It depends on how the election goes. Once (Butler PA Patriots) conduct our research and do canvassing again ... if we find no irregularities this time, then the results are the results."
Butler County: Scherer's group was successful in pressuring the Butler County commissioners to re-canvass some of the votes from the 2020 election last month. The Butler County elections office completed a hand-recount of two precincts from the 2020 election, which took nearly 170 total work hours for elections staff to sort and count ballots from two randomly selected precincts, or 1,661 ballots.
Three discrepancies were found among all 1,661 ballots reviewed — two of which were caused by a human miscounting votes and one because of machine error, according to a report by the county's acting elections director and solicitor, William White.
However, Scherer said he was still unhappy with the process and claimed it was not transparent because they did not explain the discrepancies. These discrepancies were disclosed in a detailed report by White.
Lycoming County: In one area — Lycoming County in northeastern Pennsylvania — the local patriot group claimed they received enough signatures to get the question on the ballot. However, their petitions weren't legal because they lacked important features, including a place for voters to date when they signed the petition and others that lacked circulator affidavits. A circulator affidavit is the sworn statement by the person circulating the petition that they are not committing election fraud, which were missing from the petitions turned in by groups that say they are trying to stop election fraud.
Instead, the Lycoming County commissioners voted to put the question on the ballot, in a 2-1 vote last week. However, the Department of State sent a letter to the commissioners on Friday warning that this referendum question violates federal election laws. The commissioners then reversed their decision on Monday and voted to remove it from the ballot, NorthcentralPA.com reported.
People who actually run elections doubt that the referendum would do any good if it succeeds. Humans can't count thousands of ballots more accurately than machines, said Forrest Lehman, the elections director for Lycoming County.
"To ask if it's possible, I mean, anything is possible," Lehman said. "But is it good election policy? I don't believe so. I don't see how hand-counting ballots could possibly be more accurate than automated voting systems."
"Our voting equipment is safe": The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has been monitoring these efforts across the state, said Lisa Schaefer, the association's executive director, last month. Electronic voting machines are "a secure and accurate option for counties to use to tabulate election results," she said.
"All of our voting equipment is safe," Schaefer said. "We can feel very confident in the security of the results that those machines are providing."
Counties made this process accessible, with many counties hosting town halls or allowing voters to experiment with the machines before making their purchase, Schaefer said. The Department of State also certified the machines through a public process, and has posted on its website reports about the operation and security of every voting system used in Pennsylvania.
Dominion machines: A lot of the concerns brought up at commissioner's meetings, Lehman said, have to do with Dominion Voting Systems, which Lycoming County does not use. Dominion machines have been subject to a number of disproven conspiracies from Lindell and other supporters of Trump that these machines changed votes for Trump to votes for now-President Joe Biden. Dominion has filed several billion-dollar defamation suits over the false claims, including one against Lindell.
"The rest that they have to say is merely speculative fears, concerns along the lines that 'it's a computer and any computer can be hacked, therefore we can't trust them,'" Lehman said. "By that logic, we should go back to putting money under our mattresses."
Counties across the country are receiving similar pressure to scrap electronic voting machines. Nevada will allow at least one county to hand-count its ballots, rather than use electronic voting systems.
Looking ahead: Some patriot groups are suing counties to lower their standards to get a referendum question on the ballot, Scherer said. Until then, his group intends to continue collecting signatures in case a court rules in their favor.
"It's kind of crazy because even to get on the ballot for state representative or another office, you have to do the same thing. Sometimes it's hard to even get 300 or 400 signatures and (representatives) have months to do it," he added. "We would've needed to collect 4,000 signatures in three weeks."
Scherer pointed to France as an example of a country that still hand-counts its ballots, almost all of which are cast in-person on Election Day. Voters usually know who won their election a few hours after polls close, though they are not official for a few days following the election, according to PolitiFact.
"If France can count millions of ballots as a country in one night, we can too," he added.
France does not have widespread mail voting, its average of 35 million voters is a fraction of the U.S. electorate and the administration of its elections are centralized nationally, according to PolitiFact. This is unlike the United States: Every U.S. state has its own unique voting law. Thousands of counties across six time zones individually administer elections, a patchwork system in which 158 million Americans voted in 2020.
Echoing the Pennsylvania Department of State, Butler County Commissioner Leslie Osche said in an interview last month the provision that would allow counties to stop usage of electronic voting machines was not "meant for today's time."
"That was one of the things that should've been updated in the code but was not," Osche said, adding that she still wants to be able to respond to "whatever the electorate calls for."
Washington County Commissioner Nick Sherman said his office helped its local patriot group prepare its petitions correctly, as it would for any county resident. As of last week, the group had not submitted its petitions to the county.
However, Sherman said it's "not realistic" to hire the number of people needed to hand-count ballots. Instead, he believes counties' "cast vote records" — the tabulated record of a voter's ballot — should be made public. He wrote a letter to leaders of the state Legislature and his own elected officials, asking them to amend the law to allow voters to see scans of ballots, giving them the transparency that patriot groups claim is lacking.
"We all want free and fair elections," Sherman added.