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Pennsylvania's former top voting official debunks misinformation in real time at election forum

A woman speaks at a lectern with the Pennsylvania state seal.
Julio Cortez
Former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

Voting experts defended the security of Pennsylvania’s past election results at a forum Wednesday, dismissing unfounded conspiracy theories of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. They also talked about the dangers of rampant misinformation concerning the 2020 election — a problem that unfolded in real time as the forum’s Zoom chat was peppered with false allegations of fraud in last year’s presidential contest.

“The cloud of misinformation and disinformation that swirled around all of this stuff is really staggering,” said David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of 70, a nonpartisan government reform group. “A lot of folks in the last few years have become instant experts in a process they’ve never participated in.”

Thornburgh was joined by a panel of experts that included Pennsylvania’s former top election official, Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw the 2020 election. Boockvar resigned from her post as Secretary of the Commonwealth in February, following news that the department made a clerical mistake that delayed a constitutional amendment that would have allowed survivors of child sexual abuse to sue perpetrators.

“I see disinformation as being the defining issue of our time,” Boockvar said. “Because people are literally making up data. And people think if you put data on a chart and put it into the world it must be true.”

Boockvar defended the voting processes the state has in place, including mail-in voting, which has been the subject of many voter-fraud conspiracy theories.

“One area that has gotten a lot of questions is vote by mail and absentee voting," she said. "But the truth is, in Pennsylvania, the processes followed for absentee votes are more extensive than voting in person." Applications to vote by mail are checked against the state’s driver’s license database or social security number database as well as the applicant’s voting information.

“Even before your ballot is counted, they check the [ballot's declaration envelope] barcode to make sure it’s tied to the application that was approved,” she said.

But even as experts explained how mail-in voting actually works, misinformation appeared in the Zoom panel’s chat.

“I see that there’s all kinds of things flying in the chat,” Boockvar said, and quickly debunked another mail-in voting claim.

“Somebody said in the chat that [Pennsylvania’s] risk-limiting audit did not look at mail-in ballots. That’s just wrong,” she said.

Such audits are conducted to ensure accuracy in results. Boockvar said officials “absolutely did look at mail-in ballots,” and proceeded to break down exactly how the audits work.

Other experts on the panel expressed concern about the exodus of election officials across the country: Many are leaving their jobs due to threats from people who have bought into conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

“People are threatening to slaughter [officials’] families,” said Liz Howard, who works as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “They’re threatening their children. They’re having to leave their homes. They have ‘go bags’ packed in the event of a credible threat that requires them to leave immediately.”

Howard warned that while the 2020 election is in the past, the misinformation and conspiracy theories that fueled “forensic audits” in Pennsylvania and other states will continue to be a threat.

“The big concern, at some juncture, appears to be part of a bigger effort to sabotage our election officials and our elections as we look forward to 2022 and more importantly, 2024.”