Conspiracy theories about the counting of ballots in Pennsylvania appear to have made it the unfortunate ground zero of much of the discord the country has seen since President Donald Trump lost the November election.
Rioters who supported Trump cited false allegations about election fraud in Pennsylvania — shared by some of the state’s own Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Scott Perry and state Sen. Doug Mastriano — as a reason to “storm the Capitol” on Jan. 6.
Now statehouses across the country, including the one in Pennsylvania, are bracing for additional confrontations in the coming days.
The state where the country’s democracy was founded, Pennsylvania saw members of Congress object to its electors even as broken glass still littered the floor of the Capitol hours after the riot ended, perpetuating doubts among Trump supporters about the integrity of the state’s election.
Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies said this past week that they are gearing up for potential violence in the state ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., and Gov. Tom Wolf has assigned 450 members of the state’s National Guard to protect the Pennsylvania Capitol.
“I will not allow what happened at our nation’s capital to happen here,” said Wolf, who also assigned approximately 2,000 members of the state National Guard to protect Washington.
Jack Thomas Tomarchio, who served as the principal deputy under secretary for intelligence under the Bush administration and helped set up domestic intelligence gathering networks nationwide, said Pennsylvania — where he lives — is particularly under threat because of the number of militia groups in the state and its central role in the election fraud conspiracy theories.
Tomarchio, who called claims that Pennsylvania Democrats had stolen the election “utter hogwash,” said the state faces manpower issues in protecting state and federal buildings from being targeted by domestic extremists.
“Pennsylvania is definitely a high-profile target because it’s one of the states these groups were contesting,” he said. “At the same time, Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of having about 28 militia groups, especially in the northern tier of the state. These places harbor a lot of right-wing extremist groups, and so that’s another reason why the state has to be really careful.”
The Republican-controlled legislature has done little to lower the temperature, however.
A day prior to the riot in the Capitol, Pennsylvania Republicans refused to seat state Sen. Jim Brewster, a Democrat who won a tight race in the western part of the state by 69 votes. They also removed Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, as presiding officer of the Senate because he attempted to seat Brewster.
Brewster has since been seated after a federal judge sided with Democrats, but some state Republicans are now attempting to amend Pennsylvania’s constitution and change how state Supreme Court judges are elected after lawsuits to overturn the election and challenge pandemic safety measures were denied by the state court.
“What Republicans are planning to do with the Supreme Court is reprehensible,” said Fetterman, who Republicans voted to remove as president of the Senate last week in what state Democrats called “an attempted coup.”
“My dudes had no problem with the Supreme Court from 2002 to 2015, when it was in conservative control,” he said. “But then the Democrats hustled, we took control of the Supreme Court and now they hate that Supreme Court. They literally are going to change the constitution to try to eliminate and gerrymander the court.”
Currently, members of the state’s Supreme Court are elected to their seats in statewide elections for 10-year terms. Republicans want to confine those elections to districts that would be drawn by the state legislature.
The attempted change to the state constitution could make its way before Pennsylvania voters if passed, but Wolf, a Democrat, warned the effort was an attempt at control by “hyperpartisan” Republicans.
“I strongly oppose giving the legislature the power to gerrymander our justice system,” the governor said. “This constitutional amendment is just another effort by Harrisburg Republicans to prevent the will of the people from being heard by stopping all Pennsylvanians from having a voice in selecting judges for the highest courts in the state.”
Those efforts by Republican state lawmakers now have a monthslong history: The GOP-controlled legislature refused to allow state workers to count ballots early during the election and members of the party shared election fraud falsehoods before and after the election — oftentimes parroting Trump and his lawyers.
Mastriano and Perry, both Republicans, are two Pennsylvania lawmakers who pushed election fraud conspiracy theories in their state at two levels of government.
Both are military veterans: Mastriano served as a colonel in the Army and taught at the Army War College, and Perry served as a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania National Guard. They have received numerous calls to resign for using their positions to bring the election fraud allegations to the mainstream.
Perry objected to Pennsylvania's electors after the riot occurred, along with seven other Republican members of the state's congressional delegation. Mastriano met with Trump regarding Pennsylvania's election at the White House and held a hearing for the president’s lawyers in Gettysburg to attempt to further legitimize the unsupported allegations.
Mastriano attended the protest in Washington last week, though he said he and his wife left before it turned into a riot at the Capitol.
Fetterman and other Democrats lay much of the responsibility for the perpetuation of the election falsehoods in Pennsylvania at the feet of Perry, Mastriano and state Republicans.
“It’s stunning,” said Fetterman, who expressed concern for his family’s safety. “Last Tuesday there were literally 200 crazy Trump protesters under my office balcony on the front steps of the state Capitol, and then we had the big conflagration in the Senate when they voted to eject me. There was no difference between Harrisburg and D.C. because it easily could’ve gone the same way in Harrisburg, and they could’ve stormed the state Capitol.”
“What I’m trying to say is, they stoked it, stoked and stoked it, and then Wednesday happened,” Fetterman added.
Neither Mastriano nor Perry responded to requests for comment about their active participation in spreading the election fraud falsehoods, their roles in undermining voters in Pennsylvania or the calls for their resignation. Both have released statements condemning the violence.
Perry also released a one-word statement in response to the demands that he leave office.
“No,” he wrote.
Mastriano, meanwhile, has since requested on social media that his supporters "not participate in rallies or protests over next ten days," and, "Let’s focus on praying for our nation during these troubling times." The statement represents a sudden about-face in the rhetoric he previously used, such as when he told a conservative radio show host that Trump supporters are in a "death match with the Democrat party" over the election results, according to Media Matters for America.
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Mastriano, who became a right-wing celebrity and saw his social media following blossom from a few thousand people to hundreds of thousands over his opposition to the state’s pandemic precautions and perpetuation of the president’s election falsehoods, also used campaign funds to rent buses for his supporters to travel from Chambersburg to Washington for the protest last week, according to NPR affiliate WHYY.
He charged $25 for an adult and $10 for a child to travel on the bus, the Facebook event shared by the page Doug Mastriano Fighting for Freedom said.
But the state senator — who was appointed by Republican Senate leadership to chair the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee this week — said on Newsmax that the Capitol riot was caused by only a few agitators and insinuated they were not Trump supporters.
“We were there peacefully,” he said, “99.9 percent of us, and they should not be blamed for anything.”