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Pa. group with former Gov. Tom Corbett at the helm wants to strengthen public trust in elections ahead of November

When Keep Our Republic was founded in the spring of 2020, Jan. 6 held no deeper meaning than the day Congress gathers to count electoral college votes in presidential elections.

But three years after the insurrection — and numerous election lawsuits later — the civic education organization’s goal of demystifying the process of how elections are certified has gained more public interest than its board could have foreseen.

“Our whole goal is to have people trust in elections again, and right now they don’t,” said Tom Corbett, a Republican who served one term as Pennsylvania’s governor, leaving office in 2015, and now chairs the Pennsylvania Board of Keep Our Republic.

With Mr. Corbett at the helm and a host of former Pennsylvania lawmakers, federal court judges and election officials, the non-partisan group is seeking to strengthen public trust in the electoral system ahead of the presidential election this year by educating voters on what happens after they cast their ballots — from their polling location all the way to Congressional election certification on Jan. 6.

The non-profit does so by conducting public election education programs — such as discussion panels staffed by election experts, former lawmakers and law professors — in key counties across Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

A recent panel in Lancaster County drew more than 215 community attendees who left with knowledge about Certificates of Ascertainment, the official documents used to identify a state’s electors, and the Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022, passed by a bipartisan Congress in the wake of Jan. 6 to address ambiguities left by an outdated 1887 law that governs how Congress counts electoral votes. 

“It is clear that Americans, of all political stripes, have questions about how their elections are administered,” said executive director Ari Mittleman. “Any way we can demystify that and help proactively answer those questions … that’s meaningful and important.”

The three critical swing states each became targets of attempts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn state certified election results and to advance baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the weeks that followed the 2020 general election.

Pennsylvania was one of seven states asked by allies of Mr. Trump to submit false slates of electors to Congress for certification, despite the state having been won by Mr. Biden, in what would become known as the fake elector scheme.

“Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of people who still believe in the big lie,” Mr. Corbett said.

At his first campaign stop in Pennsylvania this year, Mr. Trump falsely told the Harrisburg crowd he won Pennsylvania “twice,” despite his confirmed loss in 2020 to Mr. Biden.

The efforts by Mr. Trump to sow doubt in the integrity of elections by claiming the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” brought to light the fragility of the post-election process and the lack of public knowledge about its mechanics, said Mr. Mittleman.

Getting in the weeds to explain election certification mechanisms at the county, state and federal level is critical for preventing a repeat of the past ahead of what is expected to be a highly contentious presidential election between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden again, Mr. Mittleman said.

“We’ve taken for granted for several hundred years that elections are elections, so what? The fact is that elections are a very complicated process and if they go awry, you could have very, very bad consequences for democracy and for our republic ultimately,” said Bob Cindrich, a former judge for the United States District Court of Western Pennsylvania.

Mr. Cindrich, appointed to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton, also served as the United States Attorney for the same district. Now retired, he works with Mr. Corbett to develop the Keep Our Republic curriculum.

“We realized that this is a very unique lane for our non-profit. Just good, non-partisan civic education for both the legal community and the broader public about the calendar of the post-election period, as dry as it might sound,” Mr. Mittleman said.

Combating misinformation 

The organization does not have a “silver bullet” for restoring faith in elections, Mr. Mittleman said, so they focus on the areas where they can make the most impact. In Pennsylvania, that means working with community foundations, local academic institutions and county commissioners to get the word out to voters.

Election officials, county commissioners and municipal clerks in all three states have helped host events and drum up a diverse group of attendees. In Pennsylvania, the group has partnered with Hourglass, a Lancaster-based non-profit, and the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement, based in Harrisburg. In Michigan, the non-profit is partnered with President Gerald Ford’s Museum and Library. 

Ray D’Agostino, a Lancaster County commissioner, and Michael McDonald, director of policy at the Pennsylvania Department of State, kicked off the county’s panel last month. They started with changes to state election law, detailing how two pieces of legislation, Act 77 and Act 88, drastically altered the way elections are administered.

Before Act 77, voters needed a valid excuse to submit an absentee ballot. After it passed in 2019 with bipartisan support, all voters could vote by mail regardless of reason. The act — described by Mr. McDonald as “one of the most significant pieces of election legislation” to be passed in decades  —  also did away with straight-ticket voting at the polls and made funding available to counties for the purchase of election systems that create verifiable paper trails.

Act 88, passed in 2022 by a Republican controlled Legislature, prohibited counties from using private or third-party funding to administer elections. The law ensured federal and state funding is the only money counties can use for election-related costs.

After state election law and post-election audits, the panel drilled down to the county level.

“There’s a pretty long leash that’s given to county government in Pennsylvania,” Mr. Mittleman said. “Our program is very county-level focused because there isn’t a one-size fits all.”

In the 2020 general election, many Pennsylvania counties saw a delay in counting mail-in ballots due to a state law that prevents officials from starting the process until the morning of election day. Once all the ballots were tabulated, the lead shifted from Mr. Trump to Mr. Biden in several counties, prompting conspiracy theories about fraudulent votes.

“There is a process,” said Mr. Mittleman. “We might not know who won Pennsylvania’s electoral votes on Tuesday night. It’s quite possible we might not know who won Pennsylvania’s electoral votes on Wednesday night. But that doesn’t mean that anything nefarious is happening.”