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First it was ‘fraud,’ then they just didn’t like the rules: How Pa. Republicans justified trying to overturn an election

Even as new videos emerge capturing the horror of the Capitol assault, none of the lawmakers has broken with Trump or voiced second thoughts about their vote.

Pro-Trump rioters climb scaffolding and take to the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
Pro-Trump rioters climb scaffolding and take to the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.Read more / File Photograph

As Joe Biden took the lead in the vote count and then won Pennsylvania, some of the state’s top Republicans added their voices to President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen and rife with fraud.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry joined a “Stop the Steal” rally in Harrisburg and later went on Fox Business Network to blast Pennsylvania’s election as a “horrific embarrassment.”

“They say, ‘Oh, you know, 100,000 votes just showed up, and oh by the way, they all just happen to be for Joe Biden,’” he said in one interview on Nov 6.

“We had dead people voting. We had a lot of people voting two or three times,” U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly said during a Nov. 24 interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News radio program.

And U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler went on the far-right cable channel Newsmax to amplify unproven claims and said, “We know there were individuals that were dead that miraculously registered to vote and mailed in a vote.”

None of it was true.

The claims were false on their face and quickly debunked.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking false claims about Pennsylvania’s presidential election by Trump and his allies

Yet the congressmen and others from Pennsylvania nevertheless spent months supporting the claim that widespread fraud, procedural decisions, or irregularities undermined the integrity of the election, lending their authority to the argument that the very foundation of American democracy was being corrupted.

That belief among some Trump supporters fueled an insurrection at the Capitol last week that left five dead and threatened the peaceful transfer of power, prompting a second impeachment vote set for Wednesday.

Each claim fell by the wayside: The Trump campaign did not allege even a single instance of voter fraud in numerous Pennsylvania lawsuits, courts repeatedly rejected complaints about procedures, and the vote counting Perry and others cited was the result, widely predicted before Election Day, of mail ballots taking longer to count and being used more heavily by Democrats.

There’s only evidence of one attempt to vote on behalf of a dead person: It was by a Trump supporter in Delaware County, and emerged well after Kelly and Reschenthaler made their claims.

So when eight Pennsylvania congressmen objected last week to accepting Pennsylvania’s votes for president, a move that would have disenfranchised every voter in the state, they narrowed their arguments — instead citing administrative procedures and saying they were only trying to ensure the integrity of Pennsylvania’s vote.

A week later — even as new videos and evidence emerge capturing the horror of the Capitol assault and the FBI warns of potential new attacks — none of the lawmakers have broken with Trump or voiced second thoughts about their votes.

U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser said Tuesday that he knew his objections wouldn’t succeed in the Democratic-controlled House, but that he had to raise his concerns.

“It does not change the facts as I understood them, and I think understood them pretty well, that our secretary of state acted outside of their authority and jurisdiction and I had to call them out on it,” Meuser said in a phone interview.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans showed Trump’s grip on the party after the attack on the Capitol

In a Dec. 6 Facebook post, Meuser had written: “The unfortunate legacy of this past election is the unlawful and suppressive actions taken. ... Things we typically read about in corrupt countries.”

On Tuesday, he expressed only broad concern over the postelection rhetoric.

“I can understand how that can fuel people’s emotions, but to fuel them to the point to storm the Capitol, I don’t think anybody expected that, including the president,” Meuser said. Asked about his Facebook post, he said he hopes both parties will soften their tones.

“Our Capitol got stormed. What difference Dan Meuser made in the end? I’m sure none, but if you don’t think I feel a certain level” — he paused, “that’s our United States Capitol, that perhaps I could have done more, sure I do.”

On the House floor last week, hours after the insurrection as debate crawled from Wednesday night into Thursday morning, Meuser’s fellow objectors dropped their dramatic earlier claims.

Kelly said nothing about dead people voting. Instead, he reiterated claims he made in a lawsuit — shot down by the courts — that a 2019 state law expanding mail voting was unconstitutional. The law passed with broad bipartisan support and went unchallenged until Trump lost.

Perry argued that, “when votes are accepted under unconstitutional means without fair and equal protection for all, the only result can be an illegitimate outcome.”

» READ MORE: Lies sent Trump supporters to Washington. Can Big Tech bans stop the misinformation?

Perry, Kelly, Meuser, and Reschenthaler were joined by fellow Pennsylvania Reps. Fred Keller, John Joyce, Lloyd Smucker, and Glenn Thompson in opposing their state’s electoral votes. They raised their objections for weeks leading up to the vote, and again hours after a riot scarred the Capitol.

They were among 138 House Republicans, two-thirds of their caucus, who voted to block the state from having a say in the election.

“Part of democracy is being willing to accept the results of a legitimate election, even when it doesn’t favor you. We’ve just lost sight of that,” said Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan advocacy group that supports voting rights. “Now what we’re hearing is this rhetoric that is leading people to believe democracy doesn’t work if it doesn’t get me my outcome. ....That rhetoric is absolutely decimating confidence in our democracy.”

Only 27% of Republican voters say they trust U.S. elections, down from 72% in late September, according to a Morning Consult poll released Tuesday.

“The allegations of election irregularities and fraud have been investigated,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), who supported Trump’s reelection but opposed efforts to throw out Pennsylvania’s votes. “They’ve been adjudicated. They were adjudicated in the states in which they’re alleged to have occurred.”

Toomey, like the House Republicans, criticized some of the procedures used by state officials and authorized by the state’s Supreme Court, and said those questions need to be resolved for future elections. But he said disenfranchising the entire state would be “wildly out of proportion to the purported offenses and very damaging to our republic.”

Speaking on the Senate floor last week, hours after the insurrection, Toomey said: “Certainly there were irregularities in this election, there always are, but there’s no evidence of significant fraud, conspiracies, or even significant anomalies that cast any serious doubt on who actually won.”

» READ MORE: Where Pa. and N.J. members of Congress stand on impeaching Trump after the Capitol attack

Meuser said he knew Republicans didn’t have enough votes to overturn the results but still felt obligated to object to the election procedures.

“A ballot that is accepted illegally, and I don’t even want to use such strong language at this point, does suppress a legal ballot,” Meuser said.

But when the Trump campaign challenged some of the rules in court — seeking to ban drop boxes and require signature verification of mail ballots — a Trump-appointed federal judge ruled that the campaign didn’t prove a serious threat of voter fraud.

Election laws, like any law, are always subject to executive-branch decisions about how to implement them. And even if state officials had overstepped their authority, there has never been an instance of courts retroactively throwing out the votes of eligible voters who followed the rules as they were in place at the time, said Wendy Weiser, an election-law expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University

She added, “The country’s just witnessed where this kind of brinkmanship can lead us and how toxic and dangerous it actually is when we reject the rules of the system, try to thwart our election results, try to promote and double-down on a lie, try to use certain institutions to misuse them to try to undermine our democracy.”