Trump supporters in Pennsylvania are getting organized to challenge the presidential election result again

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Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican strategist who hosted the 2020 meeting of Pennsylvania’s fake electors at the offices of his company, Quantum Communications, in Harrisburg, Pa., on June 10.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

On a snowy Monday in December, 2020, a group of 20 Republican activists crowded into the parlour of a grey Victorian rowhouse on State Street in Harrisburg, Pa. They were gathered to cast electoral college ballots for Donald Trump.

These were not Pennsylvania’s actual electors, the people designated to formalize the presidential election result. Those individuals were two blocks away at the legislature, backing Joe Biden, who had won the state by more than 80,000 votes. The GOP crew, assembled at the office of Quantum Communications, a Republican political consultancy, were part of Mr. Trump’s doomed effort to overturn his defeat.

Quantum’s chief executive officer, Charlie Gerow, was a member of that ersatz electoral college. Sitting at a heavy wooden conference table in the same room on a recent morning, he lamented one thing: that the challenge to the election result had started too late. “The problem in 2020 was that so much of the effort was locking the gate after the horse was stolen.”

This time around, Mr. Trump and his Republicans are better prepared, Mr. Gerow said. Ahead of November’s presidential vote, they will track absentee ballot numbers and intervene anywhere they accuse Democrats of cheating. On election day, they will deploy battalions of watchers at polling stations. Post-election, they will be primed to launch court actions. As the most populous of the country’s swing states, Pennsylvania could ultimately decide who sits in the White House.

“If there are problems,” said Mr. Gerow, a bespectacled man with curly grey hair, “they will have the team in place to raise any challenges.”

Election denial looms over this year’s knife-edge rematch between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. The former president is under four criminal indictments – two of them for his attempts to have the 2020 results thrown out. He has made the prosecutions central to his campaign, casting them as part of a nefarious plot by the political establishment.

In Pennsylvania, more than one-third of state legislators have backed Mr. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged, the highest proportion among seven swing states analyzed by the States United Democracy Center, a non-profit that supports election officials.

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Looking up State Street towards the State Capitol building in Harrisburg.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

There are key checks on those lawmakers’ ability to overturn an election, in the form of Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro and Al Schmidt, the state’s chief election official. In his previous role with Philadelphia’s board of elections, Mr. Schmidt, a Republican, rejected Mr. Trump’s demands for help reversing the 2020 vote.

Still, some fear election deniers could obstruct the vote.

“There are threats to the peaceful transfer of power and the workings of the democratic process,” said Philip Hensley-Robin, the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a government watchdog group. “Delay is a tactic folks wanting to disrupt elections can use.”

Flooding the courts with challenges, for instance, could push back certification of the election long enough for election deniers to mobilize, as they did at the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

Other possible pain points are Pennsylvania’s county boards of elections, which review results before the Secretary of the Commonwealth certifies the vote.

Pennsylvania has already seen this. After the 2022 midterm and state elections, the two Republican members of the elections board in Luzerne County blocked certification. The industrial county had voted twice for Mr. Trump, but in the 2022 gubernatorial race, it narrowly went Democratic. In the end, the board’s chair broke the logjam by voting to sign off on the results, after initially abstaining.

Since 2020, Republican groups in all states have stepped up training of poll watchers, who monitor voting for fraud. While the practice is usually benign, some fear aggressive watchers will harass election staff and voters, as they did ballot counters in 2020.

Joanna McClinton, the Democratic Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, argued that claims of fraud by Mr. Trump and others could make people mistrust the electoral process – or not vote at all. “With those awful seeds being planted, I’m not going to be surprised when we see lies and conspiracy theories run out of control,” she said in her wood-panelled office off the rotunda of the Beaux-Arts legislature.

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Joanna McClinton, speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, in her office at the state capitol on June 11.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Election-denying lawmakers made their presence felt earlier this month when Ms. McClinton introduced two police officers sitting in the House gallery: Harry Dunn and Aquilino Gonell, who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. When she mentioned their service during the riot, a group of Republican legislators hissed and walked out.

Arvind Venkat, a Democratic legislator, said he saw at least eight Republicans leave the floor in protest. “That is the type of behaviour that has direct consequences on whether our democracy survives or not,” he said.

The state Republican Party has tried unsuccessfully several times to restrict mail-in voting and require that voters show driver’s licences to cast ballots. These moves followed similar laws enacted in other swing states, such as Georgia and Wisconsin.

Dr. Venkat contends that such legislation is a form of voter disenfranchisement. As an emergency-room physician by profession, he said, he has personally had difficulty getting to the polls on election day. To him, remote voting is a necessary option for shift workers, rural residents and elderly people. “Every eligible voter should be able to vote, and we should make that easier, not harder,” he said.

The state’s Republican legislative leaders played top roles in the effort to overturn Mr. Trump’s defeat. They pushed the U.S. Congress and then-vice-president Mike Pence to throw out Mr. Biden’s electoral votes, and backed lawsuits that sought to have the election result in Pennsylvania invalidated.

State Senator Doug Mastriano, who rented buses to take people to Washington on Jan. 6 and protested at the Capitol that day, said he has no regrets about it. “Last I checked, we had a right to peacefully assemble. And for those that peacefully assembled, how are they insurrectionists or criminals?” he said. “We’re supposed to be the free West. I don’t feel so free any more.”

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Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator, on June 11.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Mastriano played down his party’s ability to take action if they accuse the Democrats of fraud again in November. With control of only the state Senate, the most Republicans can do is hold hearings, he said. “What kind of power does a senator or a house rep really have?”

In four other swing states, prosecutors have laid criminal charges against people they branded “fake electors.” Mr. Gerow and his fellow participants in the meeting at Quantum have avoided this fate. That’s because they added a crucial caveat to their ballots: The vote, they wrote, was only to be used if a court invalidated Mr. Biden’s victory.

The group tried to make the proceedings resemble the real thing, Mr. Gerow recalled. They elected officers for the meeting, installing a shooting-range owner as chair. Mr. Gerow was not originally supposed to take part but stepped in when an intended “elector” couldn’t make it. “It was very serious,” he said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is a joke, watch this, we’re going to show them.’”

This time, he said, Mr. Trump will win handily, so such a procedure will not repeat itself. But if he loses? “I would not want to go down that rabbit hole.”

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