How the Pennsylvania governor’s race could determine if Trump could steal the 2024 presidential election

 (Getty/Reuters/The Independent)

In the weeks that followed the 2020 presidential election, Josh Shapiro and Doug Mastriano were on opposing sides of former president Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the presidential election in Pennsylvania.

As a state senator, Mr Mastriano was one of the biggest promoters of the lie that the election was stolen. He requested and organised a public hearing into nonexistent voter fraud in the days that featured Mr Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani. He also spent $3,354 busing people to Washington for Mr Trump’s Jan 6 rally and went to the US Capitol, though he claimed to have left before the violent riot started. In the days leading up to the certification of election results, he was part of a group of Republican state senators who asked for Congress to delay the certification of election results.

Conversely, as Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Mr Shapiro was responsible for fighting the multiple lawsuits that Mr Trump’s team brought to challenge the election results. At an event in Scranton last Saturday, Mr Shapiro talked about how he pushed back against Mr Trump, noting how Mr Trump “sued me” 43 times.

“I don’t mind getting sued, but understand why he sued,” Mr Shapiro told supporters at a Democratic office opening on Biden street. “He sued me to make sure that your vote wouldn’t count.”

The two men – one of who sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and sent buses of people to Washington, and one who pushed back – are now the respective Republican and Democratic nominees to replace term-limited Governor Tom Wolf. But Mr Mastriano’s extremism means that if he wins, he could use his power as governor to subvert the results of a future presidential election.

The predicament is not unique to Pennsylvania. In Arizona, Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake earned the support of the former president and has called for the decertification of the 2020 presidential election results. She is running against Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state who oversaw the election amid Republican disinformation efforts. Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson who also faced harassment as a result of her oversight of the 2020 election is running against Kristina Karamo, an election denier.

Pennsylvania is unique from most other states because of the fact that it does not elect its secretary of state, usually the main officer who oversees elections in a state. Rather, the governor appoints them.

Mr Mastriano did not respond to requests for an interview. But in an interview with Steve Bannon in April, Mr Mastriano laid out his plans for his secretary of state.

“I get to appoint the secretary of sate and I have a voting reform-minded individual who’s been travelling the nation and it was going to perform extremely well,” he said. “That individual has agreed to be my secretary of state. I’m going to have, of course, a team around that individual.”

That concerns Richard Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University.

“There certainly are concerns, particularly in important states like Pennsylvania, that if people get into these critical positions who reject the lawfulness of the 2020 election, there is great concern about what they might do in 2024,” he told The Independent.

Mr Pildes said that a secretary of state or governor refusing to certify the legally valid winner of an election would immediately be challenged in court, but that does not mean that governors could not create chaos in the meantime.

“Both state courts and federal courts would be available for that challenge,” he said. “But it would certainly create tremendous chaos, destabilization of the election process, even if the courts did eventually make certain that the lawful winner of the election is actually certified as the winner of the election.”

But Mr Mastriano’s plans go far beyond that as the chief executive in Pennsylvania.

“As governor, I get to decertify any or all machines in the state. Obviously, I have my eyes on several counties that have had machines that I believe are compromised,” he told Mr Bannon.

Mr Shapiro has flagged Mr Mastriano’s policies as potentially dangerous, adding that it’s part of his larger pattern of receiving support from white supremacists and antisemites like the founder of right-wing social media network Gab and his actions at the US Capitol.

“He was storming the Capitol with a violent mob trying to stop your vote from being counted,” he said at the event in Scranton. “Then he marches to the Capitol to stop your vote from being counted. And now he’s saying he’s going to decertify voting machines in order to stop in order to pick the winner he wants. That’s not how democracy works.”

Matthew Seligman, a fellow at the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University, said that it is important to take Mr Mastriano’s words seriously.

“I think that with that particular candidate, I think there’s really no room to think, well, this might be just heated campaign rhetoric to appeal to a base for a primary campaign,” he told The Independent. He’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to take extreme action to subvert election results.”

Mr Seligman said the concerns about a governor breaking with the will of the people emphasises the need to reform the Electoral Count Act, which governs how the electoral votes are counted. The 1887 law received increased attention after January when former vice president Mike Pence decided against overturning the election results despite Mr Trump’s wishes for him to do so. That has triggered a bipartisan group of Senators has come up with a framework to reform the law to explicitly make the role of the vice president solely ministerial to ensure that cannot be an option. Senators Susan Collins, a Republican, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat, have led the negotiations.

“The existing Electoral Accounts Act is catastrophically vulnerable to that type of manipulation, particularly by governors,” Mr Seligman said. “And the Electoral Account Reform Act would go an enormously far way in preventing that type of manipulation.”

But Mr Mastriano’s election denialism and cavalier attitude toward certifying elections have earned him not only Mr Trump’s endorsement but the adoration of the MAGA faithful. At Mr Trump’s rally this weekend in Wilkes-Barre, Mr Mastriano received a standing ovation when he spoke ahead of Mr Trump.

When he stood next to the former president during Mr Trump’s speech, he said, “We’re gonna fight like hell for voting integrity, and we’re gonna start with voter ID,” calling it “something very near and dear to both of our hearts.”

Mr Shapiro for his part has said this increases the stakes of the election, saying that Mr Mastriano’s actions are contrary to Republican rhetoric about freedom, and pointed out at the event in Scranton that he won the legal fights against Mr Trump in 2020.

“By the way, the former president went 0 and 43. I went 43 and 0,” he said to applause.