Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Pa. voters will soon pick the people who run the 2024 election — so a national group is fighting election denial

The Washington-based democracyFIRST is pressing candidates in races for county council and commissioner to sign a pledge that they’ll accept election results.

Three years after former President Donald Trump popularized baseless challenges to legitimate elections, a national group wants political candidates in Pennsylvania to vow they will accept election results — including those who might help run the 2024 presidential race.

The Washington-based interest group democracyFIRST is focusing on this November’s general election, pressing candidates in races for county council and commissioner to take a four-point pledge. While the state sets overall election policy, county officials do the work of actually running elections and counting votes in Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state.

“We really look holistically at the important positions in presidential battleground states that play a role in the administration, certification and counting of elections,” said Jordan Wood, the executive director of democracyFIRST.

The group, which includes a nonprofit arm and a political action committee, describes its approach as “cross-partisan.” But a list of 40 county-level candidates in Pennsylvania who have signed the pledge released last week was made up of mostly Democrats.

They include state Rep. Sara Innamorato, the Democratic nominee to succeed Rich Fitzgerald as Allegheny County executive; Chris Drexel, a Democratic nominee for Erie County Council; and Braxton White, a Democratic commissioner nominee in Clarion County.

The group has yet to approach Joe Rockey, Ms. Innamorato’s Republican rival, but would welcome his support, Mr. Wood said.

“While we have yet to hear from this group, we can assure everyone that Joe Rockey has complete faith in the electoral system and is confident that it is conducted honestly,” his campaign said in a statement. “As the only moderate in the race, Joe Rockey shares the view of the majority of Allegheny County voters that extreme political positions on either end of the spectrum can only lead to disaster.”

Mr. Wood said democracyFIRST would not campaign for or against Mr. Rockey or Ms. Innamorato if the Republican joins the pledge. Instead, the group “would applaud them both.”

“We’re just kicking off this effort” for signatures from more than 100 county candidates statewide, Mr. Wood said.

The group may find it harder to attract Republican signatories, as election denial has increasingly become something of a political litmus test in GOP politics over the last few years.

This year is a critical one for election administration in Pennsylvania, with counties across the state choosing officials who will oversee the 2024 presidential election.

democracyFIRST’s focus last year included gubernatorial races in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania — where it backed now-Gov. Josh Shapiro — and secretary-of-state races in Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. It uses the election pledge “to identify threats,” or candidates unwilling to support election certification and other principles in the document, Mr. Wood said.

Pledge signers denounce harassment of election workers, support the peaceful transfer of power and refuse to disseminate misinformation, among other related commitments. The group will work against candidates who don’t back those “fundamental principles for democracy,” Mr. Wood said. 

It spent about $200,000 in Pennsylvania’s May primary elections to support “pro-rule-of-law” Republicans in eight county commissioner races, he said. The group raised more than $5 million last year, including more than $3 million from Oklahoma-based philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, according to financial disclosures.

“Voices are heard through the vote, and we need to stand by whatever that is,” said Mr. Drexel, the Erie County Council candidate. “It doesn’t matter if you like that person, if you voted for that person — that’s who’s going to represent us because that’s who the people chose, and that’s the most important part of this process.”

Some 30% of Americans incorrectly believe President Joe Biden won the White House only through fraud, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. Those numbers are significantly higher for Republicans.

Groups like democracyFIRST have sought to bolster electoral processes in key states since the 2020 election, said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. He expects lingering tensions from that race will be “very contentious as we move toward 2024.” That’s despite growing Republican interest in bipartisan reforms since “election deniers got largely crushed” in the 2022 midterm elections, he said.

For those who believe election processes remain unfair, agreeing even to “fairly innocuous pledges” like democracyFIRST’s might appear dangerous, Mr. Borick added.

“There’s still a strong core of individuals who don’t buy the 2020 election outcomes,” he said, “and therefore are still highly suspicious of any type of electoral reform or electoral processes that they think might be somehow undermined.”

Adam Smeltz: [email protected]@asmeltz

First Published July 3, 2023, 8:49am