'Chaos here in Pennsylvania': Lou Barletta on why he'd revamp election laws as governor
GOP gubernatorial candidates have their eyes on changing the rules for 2024.
The Republican primary for governor in Pennsylvania — the nation’s largest battleground state — is beginning to look a lot like the GOP Senate primary in Ohio: a multi-candidate pile-up capable of various finishes and a late-breaking surprise.
Former Congressman Lou Barletta and state Sen. Doug Mastriano have led polling averages, with neither tightly securing as much as a quarter of the vote, leaving an opening for the better-funded Dave White and Bill McSwain, who are each positioning themselves as outsiders and splashing the airwaves with advertisements that are gradually lifting their numbers.
With just under four weeks until the May 17 primary, it looks like a four-man show, with the money of McSwain and White chasing the tenuous coalitions of Mastriano, who has assembled an anti-establishment mini-MAGA-like following, and Barletta, the best known candidate from his congressional tenure and his 2018 U.S. Senate run.
Like every other Republican primary in the country, Donald Trump’s hand is hovering as his former advisers and current allies line up behind opposing candidates tease their access to the former president. (A Trump endorsement could come at any moment and for almost any reason.)
But perhaps even more than Trump himself, a feature of this primary is the near universal belief among the Republican contenders that the 2020 election in the commonwealth was unfair, if not outright stolen, as Trump continues to falsely perpetuate.
Almost every Republican candidate would take steps to change how elections are administered in the commonwealth, especially if Trump runs for president again and leans on them during their hypothetical 2023 tenure.
The GOP-led state Senate in Pennsylvania recently approved measures to ban drop boxes that voters use to deposit ballots and end outside grants that helped administer the elections. But the current term-limited Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, has promised to veto them.
If a Republican wins the governorship this fall, expect an avalanche of election-law changes in the biggest battleground state, just in time for the 2024 presidential election.
I recently spoke to Barletta, who is statistically ahead by a smidgeon in the primary, about his first moves as governor. He said repealing Act 77 — which permitted voting by mail without having an excuse for the first time in Pennsylvania history — would top the list.
Keep in mind that in 2019, this act passed with bipartisan support in the state legislature. Now it’s become a battering ram for Republicans, as the move that turned Pennsylvania’s 2020 election upside down.
To be clear, Barletta said he still wants to permit absentee ballots, but not alllow not having an excuse from requesting one. “It doesn’t prevent people from voting,” he told me. “It prevents people from committing fraud.”
To understand the Republican thinking on the issue, I’ve published most of my interview with Barletta, which has been lightly edited for clarity and space. As you can read, I genuinely and I think respectfully, attempted to engage Barletta on his rationale behind his belief that mail-in ballots are ripe for fraud.
But the conversation also underlines why a subset of gubernatorial races could have a greater impact on how the 2024 election is run than congressional outcomes.
Catanese: But why do you think mail in ballots are connected to fraud specifically?
Barletta: I don’t know, were you in Pennsylvania during the 2020 election?
Catanese: Yeah, not election night, but I had made stops in Pittsburgh.
Barletta: For anybody that’s been here, you didn’t have to go far to see and hear the stories of what went on. People harvesting ballots, I mean we could go on and on and on. Dead people still voting in Pennsylvania. Now they don’t even have to leave the cemetery to vote, they can mail in their ballots. Act 77 mail in ballots are ripe for fraud, the ballot boxes being stuffed. People bringing multiple ballots to the ballot boxes. There was no control over what happened. We had so many more people voting by mail in – and this was the first time it was done … Chaos, it was complete chaos here in Pennsylvania and I don’t think anybody can deny that.
Catanese: The AP did an analysis of all 67 counties, they talked to county officials in all 67 and they found 26 cases of potential fraud. So that wouldn’t be enough to change the election outcome in Pennsylvania.
Barletta: Do you believe there were only 26 cases of election fraud in Pennsylvania?
Catanese: I’m just telling you what county officials…
Barletta: I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Catanese: So you don’t believe that? That’s from county officials in the state.
Barletta: Hell, hell no.
Catanese: You think tens of thousands?
Barletta: I don’t know how many. We don’t know how many. What does it matter? Shouldn’t we want every election, every vote to be fairly counted? What’s the number? What’s the number that we have to cross before we can all agree? What I don’t understand is why people push back on this.
Catanese: Well, because I think people want a more convenient way to vote.
Barletta: In Pennsylvania, 2 million people feel that it wasn’t, so what do you say to them? You don’t matter? Because the AP or somebody else said so.
Catanese: I’m just looking for evidence of the amount of fraud. According to the people who run the elections – this is not from me – this is the people that are in the counties said 26 cases in all 67 counties. That wouldn’t be enough to overturn the election. That’s not 2 million people, that’s literally two dozen people of possible fraud.
Barletta: You and I have a different opinion on this.
Catanese: It’s not an opinion, I’m replying to what the AP story
Tim Murtaugh (Barletta’s communications aide was on the line for the call:) He’s not going to give you a different answer Dave.
Catanese: Is there anything else you would do on elections?
Barletta: How about we have voter ID?
Catanese: Sure, so you would institute voter ID?
Barletta: Well the legislature would have to do that, but I would sign that. You need to show your ID to get a cheesesteak in Philadelphia.
Catanese: You do? I don’t think that’s true. Is that true?
Barletta: Yeah they were requiring … you had to show a vaccine card.