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Pennsylvania sets up election security task force ahead of 2024 presidential contest

An election worker continues the process in counting ballots for the Pennsylvania primary election, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at the Mercer County Elections Board in Mercer, Pa.
Keith Srakocic
AP Photo
An election worker continues the process in counting ballots for the Pennsylvania primary election, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at the Mercer County Elections Board in Mercer, Pa.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Law enforcement agencies, civil defense officials and election administrators have begun meeting in Pennsylvania to coordinate how they will identify and fight election threats with the presidential contest just eight months away in the battleground state, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration said Thursday.

Shapiro created the Pennsylvania Election Threats Task Force, after the state became a magnet for baseless allegations about election fraud and failed lawsuits in an effort to undo Democrat Joe Biden's 2020 victory there and keep then-President Donald Trump in power.

It will be led by his top election official, Secretary of State Al Schmidt.

The task force's mission is to design plans to share information and coordinate in the fight against threats to the election process, voter intimidation and misinformation about voting and elections.

“Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, and we are working to continue defending Pennsylvanians’ fundamental freedoms and ensure we have a free, fair, safe, secure election this November," Shapiro said in a statement.

Partners include U.S. attorney’s offices, the state attorney general's office, county election directors, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Pennsylvania is yet again expected to be pivotal in the fall presidential election.

Trump declared his mistrust of Pennsylvania in 2020, saying that “ bad things ” happen in Philadelphia, and it remains in Trump’s crosshairs.

Trump told supporters in December to “guard the vote” and to “go into” Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta to “watch those votes when they come in.”

Shapiro — who as attorney general played a central role in defending Pennsylvania’s 2020 election against Republican efforts in court to overturn it — has said that administration officials were preparing for the election on legal, law enforcement and election administration fronts.

Shapiro's Department of State is putting more resources into countering election misinformation and is improving the connectivity and processing speed of the state's digital voter registration database that counties use daily.

It created a unit to train county election workers and tried to standardize mail-in ballots to cut down on the garden-variety mistakes by registered voters that nevertheless have spawned countless lawsuits.

The election is likely to be close.

Complicating it is a state law that prohibits counties from processing mail-in ballots before Election Day — raising the specter of another drawn-out count in Pennsylvania like the one in 2020 that gave a window to Trump-inspired conspiracy theories and false claims.

Nearly every other state allows mail-in ballots to be processed before Election Day.

In recent weeks Schmidt — himself a former Philadelphia election official who has told of enduring death threats for defending the city’s 2020 vote-counting against Trump’s lies — has said that a wave of experienced administrators departing county election offices is a threat to elections.

About 70 senior county election officials in the 67 counties have left recently, Schmidt told a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon on Monday. Inexperience gives rise to mistakes that are seized on to sow doubt about elections, Schmidt said.

Any mistake, "especially in an environment where any mistake, no matter how innocent, is so easily interpreted as being intentional and malicious and seeking to change the outcome of an election,” Schmidt said.

Marc Levy | Associated Press