During the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump made a variety of false claims about voter fraud, including the assertion that “bad things happen in Philadelphia.” The city’s conservative talk radio hosts couldn’t agree more.
Like in the country as a whole, voter fraud is rare in Pennsylvania and in the city of Philadelphia. That hasn’t stopped three local talk radio hosts — Dom Giordano, Rich Zeoli, and Chris Stigall — from undermining their listeners’ faith in the upcoming election by suggesting without evidence that Democrats are planning to steal the state for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
New legal realities have reshaped what was already likely to be a contentious election in the state. In September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued rulings intended to address a surge in mail-in voting given the coronavirus pandemic. Talk radio hosts immediately seized on certain aspects of the rulings — including an extended deadline for mail-in ballots and approval of ballot drop boxes — to suggest that such election measures would encourage voter fraud.
At the same time, the consent decree that restricted the national Republican Party’s poll-watching operation was lifted in 2018, raising fears of potential voter intimidation. Talk radio hosts like Giordano serve as valuable local assets as the party attempts to expand its poll-watching operation.
Philadelphia hosts have primed their audiences to expect fraud in the upcoming election
Trump’s claim about Philadelphia originated with a campaign official named Mike Roman. Roman, who coordinated Trump’s poll-watching operations in 2016, claimed that poll watchers were being unjustly barred from satellite election offices in the city. In fact, poll watchers are not allowed because these locations are not considered polling places.
A day after the debate, Roman took to local talk radio to further hype this narrative, appearing on The Dom Giordano Program on WPHT. Giordano, a longtime Philadelphia radio personality, opened the segment by praising Trump’s baseless accusations of voter fraud during the debate: “Oh finally, getting it said. … Why is it that people believe this? What is it about Philadelphia -- oh, there’s nothing here to worry about, nothing to look at?”
At one point during the interview, Roman proposed an absurd conspiracy theory in which “antifa people” were planning to destroy “Trump ballots” at these election offices. Roman argued, “We’re not looking to interfere with the process, but we have already seen that without watchers inside of polling places, people will be tempted to run up votes. People will be tempted to throw away ballots. … Who knows how many antifa people have already signed up to work these polling places. They may start destroying Trump ballots.” Giordano replied, “Well, exactly, because they feel even if they get caught the punishment will be minimal, and they’ll be celebrated the rest of their lives as part of the resistance to stop the evil one Trump. So anything is possible here.”
The same day, Roman made another appearance on local talk radio, this time on host Chris Stigall’s show on WNTP. Stigall agreed with Roman’s complaints about satellite election offices and argued poll watchers should be allowed in.
Stigall claimed, “It’s a polling place. If people are casting votes, it’s a polling place. There’s no way to spin it and they’re trying because they don’t want to be seen doing whatever it is they’re doing in there.” He continued, “I’ll speculate they’re preparing for needing a bunch of extra ballots come Election Day for Joe Biden. That’s what I suspect they are doing in there.”
Meanwhile, host Rich Zeoli, Giordano’s colleague on WPHT, complained on September 23 that counting ballots received up to three days after Election Day creates a “motivation to make sure that there’s fake ballots that get mailed” to guarantee a Biden victory. Zeoli asked, “Could this scenario happen: It’s Tuesday night. Trump wins Pennsylvania, he wins the presidency but you still have till Friday. And then on Thursday at like 7 o’clock, 20,000 ballots show up, or maybe 2,000 ballots show up. Maybe it’s only 200, who knows how close the race will be? … Could they do this? Could they pull that off?”
Hosts like Giordano are working with local leaders to fill out the state’s poll-watching operation
In addition to promoting false claims about the city’s satellite election offices, Roman also used his appearances on both Giordano’s and Stigall’s programs to solicit volunteer poll watchers.
Giordano offered enthusiastic support for Roman’s efforts. The host argued, “We need teams of lawyers, but we need teams of people with no necks, too. I mean that’s the only thing -- this cockamamie rule that we can’t have people, I could get a thousand people from the suburbs that would come and monitor the polls in Philadelphia, but you’ve got to be in the county.”
Toward the end of his interview on Stigall’s show, Roman directed listeners to a Trump campaign site to volunteer as poll watchers, and Stigall offered to post that information on the station’s Facebook page.
In fact, even before Roman’s appearance on his show, Giordano has been active in assisting the Republican Party’s effort to expand its poll-watching operation in Pennsylvania. In September, Giordano also hosted local Republican leaders from two surrounding counties — Bucks and Montgomery — and helped them solicit volunteer poll watchers.
And during a September 25 interview with a Republican state representative from Philadelphia, Giordano declared he personally would serve as a monitor for a drop box: “I am going to do it on my own. I am not going to say which box I am going to be looking at. I am going to wait to see where they are.”