The sun sets over Pennsylvania as voters take to the polls in Harrisburg on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA
The sun sets over Pennsylvania as voters take to the polls in Harrisburg on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA
This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
When Zach Scherer woke up on Nov. 4, 2020, he was convinced something was wrong.
“When we all went to bed that night, Trump was up by millions of votes, but the next morning, we suddenly ‘lost’ by millions of votes,” he recalled recently on his website, repeating widely debunked misinformation. “It just didn’t make sense.”
So, he decided to do something about it, organizing a local group called Butler PA Patriots, which cited conspiracy theories to press the county government for election investigations and voting policy changes.
He was even more pointed on his Facebook page last December, when he said Americans should be shamed for “continuing to let the government control our election results,” which he said, without evidence, were “all preselected.”
His beliefs about elections have led him to a new phase in his journey: running for county commissioner.
In Butler, like many other parts of the state, the officials who hold the position make critical decisions shaping how elections are run and the access voters have to the ballot box.
In an in-depth review, Votebeat and Spotlight PA found that Scherer is one of dozens of commissioner candidates in the May 16 primary holding these beliefs or giving them lip service. At least 26 people running for county commissioner have directly said the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, that the outcome was affected by voter fraud, or otherwise said there is a conspiracy to manipulate elections.
The review included searching more than 400 candidates’ social media posts, campaign materials, and other public statements. Votebeat and Spotlight PA also sent a two-question email survey to as many candidates as could be reached, and spoke to others by phone. That survey asked “1) Did President Joe Biden legitimately win the 2020 election? 2) Are Pennsylvania elections secure against significant fraud or manipulation?”
The survey and review also found 19 other candidates who have expressed skepticism about the integrity or security of elections without directly saying there is significant fraud.
These 45 candidates are all Republicans. And in some cases, they’re getting key party endorsements over more mainstream incumbents and have a strong shot at seizing control of counties’ election operations.
Election officials across the state have voiced concerns that if people who believe in election conspiracies win commissioner seats, it could undermine the commonwealth’s entire election system. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice cited the prospect of “election deniers” in county positions refusing to certify elections, as shown through certification disputes in Pennsylvania last year, as a form of election subversion that could come up again.
Pennsylvania grants a lot of authority over elections to its 67 counties, so it’s often up to those counties’ boards of commissioners to make big decisions about how exactly elections will be run.
With the exception of the commonwealth’s seven home rule counties, which maintain different systems, commissioners generally make up a county’s entire board of elections.
This means commissioners determine the locations of voting precincts, set election budgets, hire election directors, and — until the law changes or courts rule differently — make consequential decisions about the rules voters follow, such as whether they can submit a mail ballot via a drop box or if they’re given an opportunity to fix a flawed mail ballot.
Those decisions factor into how easy or difficult it will be for county residents to vote, and which ballots get counted. Commissioners’ public rhetoric and messaging can also stir up voters’ distrust in elections.
Jeff Greenburg, a former election director in Mercer County who now works as a senior advisor on election administration for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Committee of Seventy, said that while election directors are often more visible when it comes time to vote, commissioners hold the real power.
“They make decisions just on the function of elections, the logistics, the x’s and o’s,” he said. “You have an election administrator who runs the day-to-day, but they answer to the commissioner.”
A commissioner’s ability to select or push out the administrator is particularly important, Greenburg said, pointing to recent news of an experienced and well-respected county election chief in Tarrant County, Texas, resigning due to conflicts with the new county executive.
The power to hire the county’s election administrator also gives commissioners influence over election operations, inviting the kind of concerns raised last month in Cochise County, Arizona, where conservative county officials replaced an election director with someone who has spread false claims alleging the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
These upheavals aren’t happening in a vacuum.
Since 2020, conservative activists in Pennsylvania and nationally have turned their focus toward local offices. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon and other allies have promoted a “precinct strategy” to capture the lowest elected offices in party politics to remake the Republican Party. Local activists like Audit the Vote PA’s Toni Shuppe have advocated for it, and the strategy has had some limited success in Pennsylvania.
Voters dealt a blow to candidates focused on spreading misinformation and doubts about election integrity in Pennsylvania last year when state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), one of the commonwealth’s most prominent backers of these theories, lost badly in his campaign for governor.
But his loss doesn’t mean the movement is dead. Many of these commissioner races are happening in deeply Republican counties, which means the primaries will likely decide who wins. Candidates won’t have to win over the whole electorate — just the base that gave Mastriano the GOP gubernatorial nomination last year.
Candidates are not always direct in articulating their election views. Several incumbent commissioners, like Republicans Nick Sherman in Washington County and Leslie Osche in Butler, have repeated the common refrain that the elections in their own county are secure, but they can’t speak for other counties or elections in general.
Roughly a dozen candidates have made references to “election integrity” without providing much, if any, definition. Groups that have pushed false narratives of widespread election fraud, like Butler PA Patriots, Audit the Vote PA, and a statewide coalition led by retired CIA officer Sam Faddis, have often used the term as a catch-all for their suspicions about electoral cheating.
Both incumbent Republican commissioners in Union County said they had worked together to “fight for election integrity.” Republican candidate Jacqueline Rivera in Lehigh County said she would “defend election integrity.” And Republican candidate Scott Burford in York County put “election integrity” on his checklist for success. At least one Democrat running in an overwhelmingly blue county — Joanna Doven in Allegheny County — adopted the phrase as well when she said she would focus on “restoring election integrity.”
These elections look slightly different in the commonwealth’s seven home rule counties, which set up their own government structures rather than adopting the commissioner system most counties use.
Home rule counties generally elect a council instead, and while council members don’t serve on boards of elections like commissioners do, they can still influence election policy through budgeting and hiring.
In 2022 when Luzerne County’s Democratic-majority Board of Elections was planning to use drop boxes in the midterm elections, members of the Republican-majority county council tried to bar county employees or resources from being used to deploy drop boxes. While the county’s home rule charter puts decisions like using drop boxes under the purview of the Board of Elections, use of county resources — like staff time — is up to the council.
Scherer, the county commissioner candidate in Butler County, told Votebeat and Spotlight PA that his beliefs about the 2020 election being unfair and elections in general being susceptible to manipulation factored “a lot” into his choice to run.
“It’s definitely a priority on my list because I see a lot of polls out there from across the country that 50 or 60% of people think their votes aren’t counted,” he said. “I honestly think that it’s a big issue [in Butler].”
And if he’s elected, he said he will act on those beliefs, seeking to examine voting machines for internet connections and, in his ideal world, moving to hand counting of ballots.
But not all commissioner candidates are making election issues part of their campaigns. While Votebeat and Spotlight PA found that roughly one-third of candidates had made statements at some point related to the way elections are run, many more are focused on much more local issues.
For example, the review found no relevant statements from any of the seven candidates for county commissioner in Clarion County, and one candidate who responded to Votebeat and Spotlight PA’s survey offered his thoughts on why.
“As long as candidates like Trump and Kari Lake are in the news, it will get talked about, but it’s not something that people are talking about locally,” Braxton White, a Democrat, said. “The issues people are talking about now are emergency services and issues with broadband. As nationalized as politics has become, people have become very [good] at tuning that stuff out locally.”
Marian Schneider, senior voting rights policy counsel at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, pointed out that while the 45 candidates identified by Votebeat and Spotlight PA may seem like a lot, not all will make it through the primary, and even if they did, they would still only make up less than a quarter of the 180 commissioner seats in the state.
Still, who wins the seats will have a direct impact on election policy for the next four years, she said, including during the crucial 2024 presidential election cycle.
Peter Bondi, managing director for Informing Democracy, a nonprofit focused on the vote-counting process, said voters should be concerned about what the group describes as “anti-democracy” officials.
“In the aftermath of the 2022 elections, we saw a lot of the narrative being focused on statewide actors as being the critical players in our elections,” Bondi said. “While certainly statewide actors do have a big role to play, the reality of the situation is that it is largely county level workers, and county level officials, who are the ones actually administering our elections.”
A recent report from the group identified more than 200 such “anti-democracy” officials, including 36 at the county level in Pennsylvania, whom Informing Democracy defined as having sought to undermine elections.
Greenburg, the former election director turned policy advisor, emphasized that the reason commissioners have become so influential in recent years is due to ambiguity in Pennsylvania’s Election Code.
Act 77, the 2019 law that created no-excuse mail voting, is unclear on several elements of election administration, such as whether countries can permit “ballot curing,” a step that allows voters to fix mail ballot mistakes. As a result, the law effectively leaves decisions about these policies up to counties, and therefore, to commissioners.
What’s more, Greenburg said, such commissioners could exploit current flaws in Pennsylvania statute, which sets no deadline for the state to certify elections and includes no real consequences for counties that do not provide their certifications to the state in the required timespan, apart from the state seeking a remedy through the courts.
Last spring, three counties — Berks, Fayette, and Lancaster — refused to include undated mail ballots in their certified primary election result. The incident was specifically mentioned in the Brennan Center report.
A state court eventually forced the counties to fully certify, but the incident raised concern that in the future county boards might refuse to certify results when they disagree with the rules for or outcome of an election. The incumbent Republican commissioners in those counties, who constitute their boards of elections, are all running for reelection.
“In the end, it feels like even without gaps [in the law] being filled by the General Assembly or all those folks being elected, I have some optimism because the courts are there as a backstop to all of this,” Greenburg said.
At least one outgoing commissioner shared his optimism, for a different reason.
Chris Young, a Republican commissioner in Columbia County, said he has been overseeing elections for 24 years as a Board of Elections member, and has learned that many people will simply say what they need to say to get elected. But he has become fed up with the narrative that elections are controlled by a “clandestine group,” when in reality, they are run by “our neighbors, our friends.”
He added, though, he doesn’t think the candidates pushing conspiracy theories are genuinely dangerous because in his opinion, they’re all talk. If elected, Young thinks many will simply “say they magically made it better.”
“They’re not going to do anything to change the system,” he said, “because the system is very good.”