A combination of local election denialist groups and national conservative media figures are driving conspiracy theories about voter fraud in Pennsylvania — the same falsehoods and misinformation that are putting election workers at an increased risk of violence, according to the FBI and Department of Justice. Pennsylvania is one of several states that have seen increased threats of violence toward election officials, driven by false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and that future voter fraud is likely.
Nearly all of the groups and media figures pushing these narratives in Pennsylvania support the gubernatorial campaign of Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who helped to incite the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, and has embraced numerous extremist positions. Mastriano also unsuccessfully used his position to attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s presidential election results, ingratiating himself to some of the state’s most extreme conservative activists.
Against this backdrop, former President Donald Trump has already begun organizing attempts to challenge the results of the state’s midterm elections, according to Rolling Stone.
Trump has been briefed on plans in multiple states and critical races — including in Georgia. But Pennsylvania has grabbed his interest most keenly, including in the Senate contest between Democrat John Fetterman and the Trump-endorsed GOP contender Mehmet Oz. If the Republican does not win by a wide enough margin to trigger a speedy concession from Fetterman — or if the vote tally is close on or after Election Night in November — Trump and other Republicans are already preparing to wage a legal and activist crusade against the “election integrity” of Democratic strongholds such as the Philly area.
Already, MAGA activists and Republican Party officials are creating the conditions that make voter suppression and violence against workers more likely. Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee's director for election integrity in Pennsylvania said on a conference call with election denialist group Audit the Vote PA that they’d filled “6,000 poll watcher positions in the state this year, compared with 1,000 in 2020,” according to Reuters, which noted that “election conspiracy groups also often appear at events with Republican officials, focused on recruiting volunteers to help watch the polls, according to the groups themselves and county officials.”
Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of state recently told PennLive that “a lot of these threats are fueled by mis- and disinformation,” emphasizing, “It’s important to get out accurate information about the election process in Pennsylvania so voters and the public know that when there are delays in counting, it doesn’t mean anything nefarious happening.”
The deep connections between these denialist influencers, their groups, and right-wing media outlets illustrate the extent to which conspiracy theories about voter fraud have become a unifying principle in conservative organizing. Now, those same false claims are potentially driving threats and harassment against election workers across the country.
Right-wing media champion Doug Mastriano’s campaign
Mastriano rose to prominence challenging Biden’s win in Pennsylvania in 2020, and election denialism has been at the forefront of his campaign for governor. He has spread these conspiracy theories across conservative media while rejecting mainstream interviews. He’s a frequent guest on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, which has become a hub for election denialists from all over the country.
One of Mastriano’s top champions in conservative media is neo-Nazi collaborator and “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, who has appeared at campaign events for Mastriano as recently as this month. Posobiec is another War Room mainstay and occasional guest host, often using Bannon’s platform to praise Mastriano’s campaign, including in an interview in July.
“The question on everybody’s mind I believe, certainly for this audience, the War Room audience, and if Steve were here right now he’d be asking the same exact question, is voter integrity,” Posobiec said near the beginning of the segment, focusing on the false idea that Pennsylvania's elections are insecure. “What can be done between now and November for the current election that you are in to preserve that idea of voter integrity and fight back against some of these issues that we’ve brought up in the past?” (Bannon was not on his show that day because he was in court unsuccessfully fighting his contempt of Congress case for refusing to testify before the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.)
“We’re going to have to have eyeballs on all the election stations,” Mastriano responded. “I need 20,000 poll watchers to cover the state.”
He then implored War Room listeners who were interested in volunteering “instead of complaining” to go to his website and sign up. To underline the point, Posobiec closed the interview by reminding the audience where they could go to volunteer to become a poll watcher.
More recently, Posobiec told War Room viewers that the governor’s race in Pennsylvania is even more important than in many other states, stating that whoever controlled that office would determine the state’s electoral votes in two years.
“If you’re looking at 2024, you have to understand that Pennsylvania is the keystone,” Posobiec said on October 1. “I railed on this in 2020. The secretary of state in Pennsylvania is an appointed Cabinet position of the governor. It is not a separately elected office.”
“That means the 2022 race for governor is the presidential race, because that determines who your secretary of state is going to be in a state which gives you 20 electoral votes,” he continued. “We’re going to make sure everybody understands the stakes that are at play here, because this is the game for our republic.”
Posobiec’s comments illustrate how Mastriano’s allies in right-wing media continue to shore up his conservative bona fides, even as his campaign attempts to obscure his extremist views. After winning the Republican gubernatorial primary in May, Mastriano or his staff apparently began deleting some of his more controversial videos and social media posts from his official accounts. These actions follow a pattern; as Media Matters previously reported, Mastriano has also posted and deleted more than 50 tweets in support of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
He may now be attempting to downplay his rampant election denialism in the weeks before the midterms. On the morning that Bannon was sentenced for contempt of Congress, Posobiec sat in as a guest co-host to interview Mastriano, and the two avoided the topic completely.
The previous evening, Mastriano appeared on conservative YouTuber Tim Pool’s show, further illustrating the candidate’s total enmeshment in right-wing media. Over the course of that more than two hour-long interview, Mastriano largely avoided pushing voter fraud conspiracy theories as well. Yet even when he seemingly attempts to moderate his position, Mastriano still perpetuates the idea that elections are fundamentally insecure and voter fraud is rampant.
“We’re working real hard to get at least one trained poll watcher in every polling station for transparency and accountability,” he said on Newsmax on October 24.
“Merely asking questions about the elections — it does not make me an election denier,” he said on One America News the same day.
But Mastriano had struck a very different tone immediately after the 2020 election. “We're going to take our power back,” he said on Bannon’s War Room on November 27, 2020, promising to “seat the electors" from a fake pro-Trump slate instead of recognizing Biden’s victory in the state.
A web of election denialist influencers
War Room has also been a platform for some of Pennsylvania’s most active conspiracy theorists, including Toni Shuppe, who heads denialist group Audit the Vote PA. Shuppe has argued that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory – which purports that high-ranking Democrats were involved in a child sex trafficking ring – is “absolutely real.” She also claimed that QAnon, which has many of the same themes as Pizzagate, is a “very valuable resource.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Posobiec also pushed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and created disinformation about the origins of QAnon in an apparent effort to save the Trump campaign from embarrassment.
In August, Shuppe appeared on War Room to advocate against using machines to count and tabulate votes, based on the debunked theory that voting machines were used to rig the 2020 election.
“We have a massive grassroots movement in Pennsylvania,” Bannon said. “It’s essentially what got President Trump elected in 2016, and to be brutally frank, it’s real votes, certifiable votes, it’s what got him to win Pennsylvania in 2020.” (In reality, Trump lost Pennsylvania in 2020.)
“We’re dealing with a weaponized government, which, I don’t have to tell you or anybody that watches your show that that’s what we’re dealing with,” Shuppe told Bannon. “So there’s a risk there, but there’s nothing in the law that says we can’t make these changes in our report that’s on our website.”
In addition to appearing frequently on War Room and failing Fox News competitor One America News, Shuppe hosts her own streaming show, also called Audit the Vote PA. The show serves as a combination of propaganda outlet and organizing space to enlist new adherents and keep those already engaged active in the run-up to the midterms.
In July, Shuppe interviewed election denialist and retired CIA officer Sam Faddis, who reportedly recently met with Trump to lay out plans for challenging the midterm results in Pennsylvania. In that segment, Faddis promoted an upcoming rally he was participating in with election denier Catherine Engelbrecht, whose group True the Vote has become a leading voice in the nationwide denialist movement. Faddis also defended Mastriano, and cautioned that conservatives should not become demoralized at the prospect of needing to overcome stolen elections.
“And just in case you’re thinking about staying home and not voting, I get the frustration around 2020 isn’t fixed, we still have what appears to be an illegitimate president, and it is very tempting to throw in the towel and say, ‘What’s the point of voting?’” Shuppe said. “But I strongly encourage you otherwise because November 2022 in Pennsylvania is going to be a pivotal election, not just for our state, but I believe for the rest of the country.”
Shuppe also interviewed Posobiec earlier this month and the two pushed conspiracy theories about the state’s supposed election vulnerabilities.
“If you can get everything right in terms of turnout, if you get everything right in terms of integrity, then you get Pennsylvania back, you flip Pennsylvania,” Posobiec said. He later added, “In order to do that, you need to lay the groundwork out years ahead of the race. And that’s what Sen. Mastriano provides.”
Shuppe responded by claiming Democratic gubernatorial nominee and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro is “ultimately afraid that we’re going to get a transparent, free and fair election process with a Gov. Mastriano and they won’t be able to stuff ballots and cheat the way they did in 2020.”
“I am reasonably certain there hasn't been a free and fair election in the United States in over 20 years,” Borton said. “Maybe longer.”
“I would agree,” Shuppe responded.
Borton is a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by America First Legal (AFL), a conservative legal group founded by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, against Chester County, Pennsylvania, over allegations that ballots had been dropped in unmonitored drop boxes in violation of state law. Borton, who helped obtain the footage, hopes the case or others like it will bring an end to ballot drop boxes altogether.
“Me being the eternal optimist that I am, this could conceivably mean that a day or so after the drop boxes open, we nab a couple people, have proof of it, and they all get shut down for the rest of the time leading up to the election,” Borton told Shuppe.
Though the complaint alleges that surveillance video shows “over 300 individuals” dropping off more than one ballot, which is against Pennsylvania law, some extremist media figures have exaggerated this case as an example of verified, intentional voter fraud and pressed that this exemplifies the need for physical monitoring at drop boxes.
Infowars’ resident insurrectionist Owen Shroyer opened his September 19 discussion of the subject by complaining that the media is “demonizing conservatives, demonizing Republicans for staking out polling locations and drop boxes,” citing evidence from the AFL that allegedly “found individuals stuffing ballot boxes, same people showing up multiple times with dozens of ballots.” Shroyer asked his audience, “Why don’t Democrats want you watching drop boxes? Because Democrats are using drop boxes to cheat and steal an election.”
A judge in a similar case brought by AFL in Pennsylvania ruled that in-person monitoring was not necessary.
“Since mail-in ballots have been in use, no fraud has been detected in Lehigh County with the mail-in ballot process,” Judge Thomas Capehart wrote.
Fox News hosts amplify bogus ballot stuffing claims
Borton has played an outsized role in some of the national media attention on Pennsylvania’s elections. Most of the national conservative media coverage centers around mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes, both of which have been identified, incorrectly, by Pennsylvania election deniers and the Republican Party as previous sites of voter fraud.
Fox host Mark Levin celebrated AFL’s Chester County complaint as a win, adding, “I suspect there's a hell of a lot more than one.”
Separately, a long-running legal fight over undated mail-in ballots came to a head on October 11, when the Supreme Court vacated a lower court ruling that allowed undated ballots to be counted in a 2021 local county judge election. Pennsylvania law requires that mail-in ballot envelopes be hand-signed and dated, though both the state’s Commonwealth Court and 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that this provision was designed to unfairly throw out ballots. Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman issued guidance that same day directing counties to continue to count undated mail-in ballots, as the Supreme Court’s decision was not relevant to midterms.
On his radio show, Fox host Sean Hannity pressed that Chapman’s guidance was an excuse for Democrats to give their voters an advantage: “Of course, Democrats, they don't want to follow laws. They want to make them up as they go along and, you know, make everything work to their advantage.”
Levin was more direct, arguing that this shows “they're trying to steal the election for” Democratic Senate nominee and current Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. According to Levin, “This is the sort of thing that changes election results.”
On a previous show, Levin accused Democrats of “causing all this anguish, this anarchy,” as “the Republicans aren't in there trying to change state law through well-placed Republican officials. It’s the Democrats.”
Of course, as Posobiec outlined above, this is exactly the election denialist plan for 2024: Disrupt midterms, get Republicans elected, and lay the groundwork for an easy 2024 Trump win.