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As Trump repeats ‘the Big Lie,’ this group is working to boost faith in Pa.’s elections ahead of November

“I think what we saw in ‘20 was a lot of people not understanding the system,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said. “And I think they still don’t.”

by Julia Terruso | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published 

Mark Lefelhoc believes in voting, especially when former President Donald Trump is on the ballot. But since 2020, the retired truck driver hasn’t put much faith in the U.S. election system.

“How do I feel about the next one? Well, that depends,” Lefelhoc, 67, told The Inquirer at the National Rifle Association’s outdoor show in Harrisburg last week. “Are they gonna steal it again?”

Lefelhoc is one of thousands of Americans who still believe the “Big Lie,” that Trump won the 2020 election. As the 2024 election approaches, county election boards, officials, and some nonprofit groups are trying to improve trust in U.S. elections.

Trump’s most faithful believers may never come around, especially as Trump has continued to push a false narrative of election denialism — as he did Friday in Harrisburg when he wrongly claimed he won Pennsylvania twice. But others hope voters who have some skepticism about elections or susceptibility to misinformation can be reached simply by demystifying the process of how elections work.

“I think what we saw in ‘20 was a lot of people not understanding the system,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said. “And I think they still don’t.”

Corbett, a Republican who left office before Trump’s rise, is on the board of a nonprofit group, Keep Our Republic, which is trying to rebuild trust in elections ahead of November. The group is running programming in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Most recently, it convened a panel in Lancaster.

“Pennsylvanians are going to have a lot of questions about why on Tuesday night we’re probably not gonna know who won Pennsylvania’s electoral votes,” said Ari Mittleman, the executive director of Keep Our Republic. “We’re not going to get to 13 million Pennsylvanians but we’re trying to get to the key constituencies and key counties to get into the weeds of how those counties are administering their elections.”

In 2020, processing mail ballots in Pennsylvania took days, delaying a call on who won the state —and the presidency —until the Saturday after Election Day.

Corbett would love to see county officials doing more educational outreach — at county fairs and other community events. Many county election boards are already stretched thin in staffing and resources, though, so the group is trying to facilitate conversations and programming.

What the heck is a certificate of ascertainment?

In Lancaster last week, the group presented information on how elections are run. At other events Keep Our Republic has presented a PowerPoint that starts with the messy election of 1876 and tracks changes to election law through history to better safeguard voting. The group also covers how elections are certified, from counties uploading results to absentee votes to post election audits.

It’s dry stuff but it’s important and not very well known, Mittleman said.

Mittleman was meeting with legislators in Wisconsin last year when a senior-level elected official confessed he had no idea about the post-Election Day process. “He said, ‘I was on the ballot 16 times. I knew how to get my people to the polls. I knew which supporters I’d bus down for inauguration … I never stopped and thought about November and December,’” Mittleman said, recalling the conversation.

“If someone at that level of state politics doesn’t really think about … a governor’s certificate of ascertainment, than Joe Q public certainly doesn’t,” Mittleman said, referring to the document governors sign to appoint electors to the Electoral College.

There’s also the tedious but important work of combating misinformation. Corbett, in a recent radio interview in Harrisburg, was asked about “ballot harvesting in nursing homes.”

“Well, again, ‘What do you mean by harvesting?’” Corbett said he asked the caller. Pressuring someone on how to vote is illegal but helping an elderly family member vote is allowed.

“But that needs to be explained,” Corbett said. “And then maybe asking the questions, ‘Well, where have you seen that?’ I’m a prosecutor. I believe in evidence. I believe in facts.”

‘We’ve gotta stop the cheating.’

Corbett would have to do a lot of radio interviews to combat all the misinformation about 2020.

According to The Washington Post, about two-thirds of Republican Iowa caucusgoers said they did not believe President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.

More broadly, the percentage of Republicans nationally who think Biden’s win was illegitimate hit nearly 70% in an August 2023 CNN poll.

And at Trump’s NRA-hosted rally in Harrisburg last week, supporters consistently brought up their belief that Trump won in 2020, unprompted.

“I still don’t believe it was a legitimate win,” said Barbara Holstein, an educator and school bus driver from Sussex County who was attending her sixth Trump rally. She cited the widely debunked election denial book 2,000 Mules as proof. “Were those votes real? Sure,” Holstein said. “They were real ballots, but they weren’t real votes.”

Richard Dugan, 70, a retired carbon factory worker from Potter County, said election integrity was his No. 2 issue after securing the border.

“We’ve gotta stop the cheating,” Dugan said. “If you gotta cheat to win, you don’t deserve to be in there and as far as I’m concerned Trump won that election.”

Sen. Chris Coons, (D., Del.), who worked in county government before becoming a senator, said misinformation headed into the 2024 election is extremely worrisome. He’s cosponsored a bill that would require a warning label of sorts on any campaign ads or material meant to influence an election that uses artificial intelligence.

He doesn’t think the Big Lie is as widespread outside of Trump’s most faithful, though, as evidenced in GOP losses in races where they ran election deniers in the 2022 midterms.

“I think it is corrosive to have a former president who has been dedicated full time for years to saying the election system is horribly broken,” Coons said. “But the American people get it. They’re in on the joke. In the states where Republicans won, they … didn’t raise any questions about the legitimacy of the elections.”

And Corbett said his group isn’t aiming at the extremes.

“There are a huge amount of people in the middle that can be influenced by the actions of people on the extremes. And what we’re trying to do is educate and say, ‘You need to trust the system,’” Corbet said. “You can question the system, but you should be questioning the system now to see how it’s done.’”