Opinion | Pennsylvania governor’s primary result raises threat to U.S. democracy

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Most eyes Tuesday night were on the marquee primary race of this midterm election cycle — the cliffhanger Pennsylvania Senate race featuring the Trump-endorsed talk show host Mehmet Oz, the results of which could determine which party holds the Senate next year. But the Pennsylvania governor’s primary result is potentially far more consequential for the nation’s political future. Republican voters overwhelmingly nominated state Sen. Doug Mastriano, one of the country’s most ardent deniers of the 2020 presidential election result. If Mr. Mastriano is elected in November, he could directly threaten US democracy going forward.

Mr. Mastriano, a sycophant Trump, pushed aggressively to overturn President Biden’s 2020 victory in Pennsylvania, embracing the theory that the state legislature could void the results and appoint its own slate of electors for Donald Trump. Mr. Mastriano pressed the Justice Department to get involved in the bogus fraud claims he sought to advance. Neither state GOP leaders nor the Justice Department followed along, which is why his push did not result in a major constitutional crisis. If he is governor in 2024, there is little doubt he would use his authority to reject free-and-fair election results, should the voters favor a Democratic candidate in the crucial swing state.

His power over the process would be substantial. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state, the state’s chief elections official who certifies vote tallies. The governor also signs that certification. Mr. Mastriano has already said he would demand that all voters re-register, a ploy designed to disenfranchise vast numbers of people. Come 2024, his secretary of state could also certify a slate of rogue presidential electors, against voters’ wishes, and send them to Congress for counting. The 1887 Electoral Count Act, the federal law governing how Congress tallies electoral votes, might allow a partisan House majority to accept this illegitimate slate, even if the Senate objects.

Mr. Mastriano’s alarming rise, and that of other election deniers who have won GOP primaries this year, call for two urgent responses. General election voters must reject candidates who, either through delusion or partisan calculation, deny valid election results. Inflation, the Ukraine war, gasoline prices, the covid-19 pandemic — none of these issues are as important as preserving the democratic order. Americans should vote like it.

In the meantime, members of Congress must update and clarify the laws that undergird the nation’s democratic system, starting with the ancient Electoral Count Act. It should be impossible for a partisan congressional majority or the vice president to overturn a presidential election, or for a governor to submit a batch of fake electors. A careful reform would raise the bar for federal lawmakers to object to states’ electors while also ensuring sufficient court supervision over state election officials’ actions. A bipartisan group of senators led by Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) is working on a bill. They must hurry; the window they have to legislate before this year’s midterms, when control of Congress could be turned over to Republicans, is closing fast.

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