PHILADELPHIA — Some Doug Mastriano supporters mistakenly believe the results of the 2022 election are inaccurate, and they think they’ve found a way to do something about it.
Anti-election 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 that efforts to require counties to say their votes again will succeed; some courts have already dismissed the applications. It won’t give Mastriano, the defeated Republican nominee for governor, the 781,000 votes he lost by to Democratic governor-elect Josh Shapiro.
But the effort threatens to create confusion over the validity of this month’s election, deadlock state courts and disrupt officials’ ongoing work to review and certify results by Monday’s deadline. It’s the latest front in a refuse-to-choice movement that has helped popularize Mastriano and has repeatedly attempted to find and exploit weaknesses in the state’s electoral system.
The groups – which organize through social media and some claim to be working with Mastriano’s campaign – filed more than 100 petitions in at least a dozen counties over the past week, according to interviews and court filings. Election officials said they had heard from at least 17 other counties where petitions were being filed and records were not immediately available.
For the most part, the petitions share a similar format — and in many cases use the same pre-packaged legal document with blank fields for individual applicants to fill out.
“These orchestrated steps to delay confirmation of the county-level vote are a deliberate attempt to disregard the will of the people as reflected in the election results,” the Pennsylvania State Department, which oversees the election, said in a statement.
A county’s results can be recounted under state electoral law if three voters from the county pay $50 and petition the county court believing there was “fraud or error.”
The provision is rarely used. In the past, it’s primarily triggered recounts in small, local races, said Adam Bonin, an attorney for democratic elections who has used it in razor-thin races for school boards and township commissioners.
“With races that are actually incredibly close – we’re talking single digit races for local offices – you want to be sure in these circumstances that every machine’s results have been accurately transcribed, that every paper ballot has been correctly scanned by the machine. and there were no accidental calculation errors,” said Bonin.
However, some election officials have feared for years that malicious actors might attempt to weaponize the law in state or national elections. Word began to circulate among county election officials last week that vote-resisting activists were using recount petitions on a large scale in an organized manner for the first time.
“It’s their latest brilliant idea,” a precinct elections commissioner told The Inquirer, calling it a “merry-go-round of nonsense.”
In Bucks County, the attack began last Thursday, and 18 recount requests were filed in one day. Voters filed Friday 12 in Allegheny County. Montgomery County received 37 in two days. Chester 11. And in Berks County, a group calling itself the Pennsylvania Liberty Fund said it has organized 30 more.
“It’s a lot of the same groups and the same people … they find things in the law and they use it to bog us down,” said Sean D. Drasher, the Lebanon County Electoral Officer, who has counted petitions in five counties. They were all dropped off by one person at the same time, Drasher said.
Few of the constituents who submitted petitions for the recount were willing to discuss it or whether they worked with organized groups. Those who did so cited vague concerns about voting machines and poll workers.
Barbara Canete, a Bucks County Republican Committee person who resides in Bristol Twp. petitioned for a recount, said she had heard about the effort by “grassroots groups” who had been preparing for months. Like most petitions reviewed by The Inquirer, Canetes specifically sought a hand count of the governor’s race, although some called for recounts in other races as well.
“There are things going on behind the scenes that I don’t think are really happening,” she said.
Signs of wider organizing have proliferated online and spread quickly among conservative groups on social media.
A Facebook group called “We The People of Columbia County PA” last week posted a “call to action” to seek recruits for recount petitions in this northeastern Pennsylvania county. Audit the Vote PA, an organization that has repeatedly propagated electoral conspiracy theories and has allied itself with Mastriano, would reimburse voters for the $50 registration fee if possible. Audit the Vote co-founder Karen Taylor submitted her own recount application in Westmoreland County.
The Facebook post, which was deleted this week, also encouraged voters to email an address linked to Mastriano’s campaign to receive links to the necessary forms. The Mastriano campaign did not respond to questions about its involvement.
In Bucks County this month, the conservative group Right for Bucks hosted a virtual event called Audit the Vote, which was recruiting to take part in an unspecified “election challenge.” It later made sample recount petition forms available on its website.
Most local Republican Party officials have avoided public support for the recount push, with some dismissing it as a fringe idea. But in Berks County, the local GOP committee openly supports the effort.
“No one is saying the 2022 election was stolen,” party leader Clay Breece said in a statement, which also asked for donations to fund the work. “We are asking for a court order to open the ballot boxes so that people can manually count the paper ballots to verify that the machines are working as advertised.”
But some of the most persistent and damaging attacks on Pennsylvania’s electoral system, officials and experts say, are those disguised simply as a search for transparency. They can undermine confidence in the system, and recount and audit requests, when organized, can overwhelm polling stations.
This summer, county election offices received requests for public records, which an official likened to a “denial-of-service” attack attempting to crash a web server by overloading it with traffic. The wave of recount petitions feels like the latest front, election officials said.
“While it sounds like it’s a very good way to keep tabs on the government,” Drasher said, “it’s also a great way to be unaccountable and file paperwork that bothers county governments.”
Local election officials have already counted the results, reviewed their work and resolved any discrepancies, recounted a sample of ballots as required by law, and are conducting a nationwide “risk-limiting audit,” which is considered the gold standard method of verifying election results.
The district courts have yet to rule on the vast majority of the recount requests. But the few who have come before judges so far have not fared well.
A Butler County judge dismissed multiple recount requests Wednesday, District Attorney H. William White III said. Three of the petitions were filed by voters who served as poll workers and their polling station’s results just days before recount petitions were filed amid allegations of unspecified “fraud or error” in the counties where they had worked , had signed.
And a Forest County ruling Monday could herald a broader rejection of petitions statewide.
Common Pleas Court Judge Maureen A. Skerda dismissed two petitions there, citing legal language that requires voters seeking to force a recount to produce either concrete evidence of fraud or error, or in any district in where the election took place, submit petitions. That means petitions filed in the governor’s race without specific allegations of fraud would have to be filed in each of the thousands of electoral districts across the state.
Mastriano, who was defeated five days after election day, lost almost 15 percentage points.
“We’re way, way, way outside of the margin of error, and these are just frivolous requests from people who can’t accept the results of an election,” said Northumberland County Administrator Nathan Savidge, Republican. “The soon-to-be Governor Shapiro blew Mastriano out of the water.”