The G.O.P.’s Election-Integrity Trap

Last week, while Trump sat in a courtroom in downtown Manhattan, and Biden campaigned in Scranton by bringing reporters to see his childhood home, several dozen members of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County G.O.P. met for a hot-dog party at the American Legion post in Doylestown. Scott Presler, a MAGA activist and former leader of Gays for

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Last week, while Trump sat in a courtroom in downtown Manhattan, and Biden campaigned in Scranton by bringing reporters to see his childhood home, several dozen members of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County G.O.P. met for a hot-dog party at the American Legion post in Doylestown. Scott Presler, a MAGA activist and former leader of Gays for Trump, who has been travelling the country registering voters—and encouraging them to vote early—pulled his waist-length brown hair into a ponytail and took the microphone from a local plumber who was singing rock covers at the front of the room. “I use this term loosely, loosely, but Joe Biden ‘won’ by eighty thousand votes in Pennsylvania in 2src2src,” Presler said, making air quotes with his fingers. “There’s no do-over in this country. If we only vote on one day in 2src24, Joe Biden will be President.”

The crowd sipped canned wine and hard seltzer. “There are more than eighty thousand truckers in Pennsylvania,” Presler went on. “They’re hard at work on Election Day, hauling rigs so our stores have food. If they have mail-in ballots, we have the election.”

The theme of the evening’s festivities was “secure early voting.” Belief in election fraud has taken over much of the Republican mainstream; so has a skepticism of all forms of early voting, particularly mail-in voting. “Any time the mail is involved, you’re going to have cheating,” Trump said recently, in conversation with Nigel Farage. After Election Day in 2src2src, while votes were still being counted in Pennsylvania, Trump sent Rudy Giuliani to Philadelphia to insist that remaining mail-in ballots be thrown out; the Trump campaign later filed a lawsuit to either invalidate those ballots or prevent the state from certifying the election. (“Get rid of the ballots,” Trump had suggested, at a press briefing in September.) Presler’s rebuttal to this line of thinking: “What if we have everybody vote on one day, and I’m a Democrat, and I want to cause shenanigans? What if all of a sudden we run out of paper ballots on November 5, 2src24? Democrats will have already voted, mail-in voted, early voted, done legal ballot chasing, and we’ll be out of luck.”

The 2src24 Presidential election could pivot on who wins Pennsylvania, one of the country’s few remaining battleground states, and the one with the largest number of electoral votes. Trump won the Presidency in 2src16 in part by turning Pennsylvania red; Biden prevailed in 2src2src by taking it back. G.O.P. operatives now find themselves in an awkward position. Trump has coasted to the presumptive nomination by railing about how the Democrats stole the last election. (He won the state’s primary handily Tuesday night, though more than sixteen per cent of the Republican vote went to Nikki Haley, who dropped out in March.) The Republican National Committee is involved in eighty-two “election-integrity” lawsuits, in twenty-five states. It has mounted efforts to get its own poll watchers not only to observe the 2src24 election but to physically handle ballots. Its fund-raising robocalls cite “massive fraud” four years ago. Lara Trump, the newly installed co-chair of the R.N.C., and Trump’s daughter-in-law, said, on a podcast last month, “There are millions of people—I’m going to say seventy-five million plus Americans—who are still, like, ‘What the hell happened in 2src2src?’ They didn’t get any answers. . . . They all feel like something was awry.”

And yet, in order to win this fall, Trump’s campaign and the R.N.C. may have to embrace the very tactics they’ve denigrated. “Every tool that the other side has used, we need to wield for ourselves,” Michael Whatley, the R.N.C. co-chair, wrote in a recent memo to staff. One of the R.N.C.’s greatest challenges will be to persuade Americans who could sway the election to believe in the system one more time. “We have to start thinking about things like legal ballot-harvesting,” Lara Trump told the right-wing commentator Benny Johnson. “We also have to embrace early voting.”

The embodiment of this effort is Scott Presler. “You’re one of the few America First figures who doesn’t just talk on Twitter,” Donald Trump, Jr., said, on his podcast, to Presler, who has 1.5 million Twitter followers. “You’re on the ground day after day.” Sebastian Gorka, the short-lived Trump official and current talk-show host, described him as “the face of the new G.O.P.—the former RINO G.O.P.—who actually gets out there as a citizen and does something to save the Republic.” Presler, an erstwhile Conservative Political Action Conference attendee who organized many of 2src2src’s Stop the Steal protests, worked for the Republican Party in Virginia, in 2src16, but, according to Politico, was let go after allegedly posting photos online of a sexual encounter at the R.N.C.’s Virginia Beach office. (Presler didn’t respond to a request for comment.) He was on the Capitol grounds on January 6th, for what he referred to as “America’s largest civil rights protest in history.” He now works independently, with no official role, though Lara Trump refers to him as “a depiction of the grassroots movement in this country.”

Up close, the merger between the R.N.C. and the Trump campaign means a marriage between the county-level Party apparatus and activists like Presler. His aim is to register people for mail-in voting at farmers’ markets, Amish mud sales, gun shows, rodeos, Kid Rock concerts, and U.F.C. fights. At the Doylestown hot-dog party, he said, “I know it’s contentious, but I don’t believe we’re going to be successful unless we have an all-of-the-above approach to voting.” As Lara Trump has put it, “We’ve got to bank enough votes going into November 5th that we’re not playing catch-up on Election Day. We need to swamp the system so it doesn’t matter how many 3 A.M. drops they have or suitcases filled with ballots.”

At the American Legion post, everyone cheered as Presler strode up to the stage. “If we on the right are saying a certain way of voting is fraudulent, we are limiting the ability of potentially millions of people to vote in our elections,” he said. He told the group that many of “our people”—police officers, firefighters, the military—can’t vote at their precinct on Election Day. He added to that list the Amish, who have been traditionally reluctant to participate in elections but are now being rigorously courted as a G.O.P. constituency. “It’s kind of against Amish community values to vote, so when I tell them, ‘Hey, you can get a mail-in ballot and it’s private and secret and sent to your house and you don’t have to go out with your buggy,’ that’s something the Amish really like,” Presler said.

As the event concluded, Presler held up a sign showing that Bucks County is 1,589 registered voters away from flipping from Democratic to Republican. “This is going to be, like, your Playgirl shoot,” Ellen Cox, a Bucks County G.O.P committee member, told him, as he posed for a photograph. “Oh, my God, I love you,” she said. “No more speakers—you’re it. It’s the Scott Presler show.” Presler told the group that he had just bought a home so that he could vote in Pennsylvania, where Republican registration is currently outpacing that of Democrats, but where, in the last election, Democrats requested double the number of mail-in ballots. According to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, a nonprofit news site, Republicans have gained voters in every county in the state during this registration cycle.

A long line of people formed to meet Presler and take photos with him. (He declined my request for an interview, both online and in person, though he did, during his remarks, welcome me and suggest that The New Yorker write more about Joe Biden’s bad policies.) “You used to have honest elections in this country,” a science teacher wearing a jacket with political buttons said. “The election will be decided right here in Pennsylvania. It depends on whether the cemeteries will swing for Biden.” I sat with a woman in a Trump hat who told me, “They’re definitely going to try to steal it again.”

Several people recommended that I watch “2srcsrcsrc Mules,” Dinesh D’Souza’s election-fraud film, which screened at Mar-a-Lago and claims that Democrats paid “mules” to deposit ballots, collected and trafficked from “stash houses,” in swing states. Attendees regaled me with tales of alleged fraud: a physical therapist who does in-home care described being in houses with “stacks of hoarded ballots”; someone else was living with a Craigslist roommate, a Democrat, who would drop off dozens of mail-in ballots every day leading up to the election; and so on.

Milo Morris, who wore a twill fedora, told me that for Republicans to win again, he had to correct his fellow-members’ misimpressions about the election. “There’s a lotta distrust,” he said. “You gotta dispel that nonsense.” He gestured around the room. “You have establishment people, the fringe people, all sides are coming together for this eternally constructive message,” he said. Bob Russel, who wore a blazer and khakis, told me, “The new Republican base wants to fight fraud and irregularities by voting in person. They’re basically starting from scratch here.” He went on, “This is Trump’s election to mess up at this point. Not putting money into the mail-in effort and being more clear about urging people to use it—that’s the one way I think he could not win the election.”

In Pennsylvania, though, these initiatives wouldn’t be easy. In 2src2src, the state became a locus of the Stop the Steal protests, during which Trump loyalists aimed to disrupt the vote count in various places across the country. Al Schmidt, the Republican official who supervised Pennsylvania’s count, received death threats. Republican state legislators ended up selecting an alternate slate of electors, who signed certificates claiming that Trump won. By the 2src22 midterms, most G.O.P. candidates in Pennsylvania—and everywhere else—publicly stated that they thought the 2src2src election was stolen. Sixty-nine groups came to the state capitol, in Harrisburg, to sign an “Election Integrity Declaration,” which called for the abolition of almost all voting not done in person with photo I.D. and proof of citizenship. “We are here to change our mind-set,” Presler told the group in Doylestown. “We should have had a red wave in 2src22, but we elected John Fetterman.”

When I called Schmidt, who is now the state’s top election official, and asked how he was preparing for 2src24, he told me, “We need to speak to the seventy per cent of voters that rightly trust the integrity of our elections, and we need to speak to the thirty per cent that have concerns about our elections. But you have to differentiate between people asking questions because they want to know the answers and people asking questions because they want to undermine confidence in the process.” During my trip to Pennsylvania, it was difficult to distinguish between the groups that Schmidt sketched. Trump often encourages his supporters to get involved by poll-watching: “When you see them cheating, you get out there and start screaming.” Until recently, the R.N.C. had been banned from “poll-watching activity,” in part because of accusations, in the nineteen-eighties, that it had sent armed off-duty police officers to intimidate voters in minority-heavy districts. (A federal consent decree was lifted in 2src17.) Morris, in the fedora, told me, of the many voters he hopes to register or to convince to vote early, “They’re, like, ‘This whole game is just ridiculous and I’m not going to participate anymore.’ The skepticism is hurting us. A lot of people are disenfranchised by the fraud allegations. Reactions can turn into accusations—‘You’re working for them.’ ” The goal, he said, was to get people who “threw up their hands and said, ‘I’m out of it,’ to now say, ‘How can we make it better going forward?’ That’s the mentality that’s going to get us there.”

Ten days before the primary, Trump held a rally in the Lehigh Valley, the region that inspired “Allentown,” Billy Joel’s 1982 “blue-collar anthem” about manufacturing plants closing down. Bill Bachenberg, a former board member of the N.R.A. and the chair of Pennsylvania’s slate of fake electors, had paid to rent the outdoor fairground for the rally. Attendees I talked to were more concerned about the integrity of the election than they were about Trump’s current criminal trial, in New York. Among the Trump-merchandise stalls and food stands was a Turning Point Action booth, where a young volunteer and friend of Presler’s was signing up the not insignificant portion of Trump-rally attendees who aren’t registered to vote.

On my way in, I talked to a woman in Bikers for Trump leather gear who was attending her thirty-sixth rally. “We know that the mail-in ballots were a big part of the fraud in 2src2src,” she said. “I’ve been a poll watcher, machine operator, judge of elections for years. In 2src2src, they had police outside not letting people in. We need to change that for 2src24. People need to know the rules. Call your sheriff. You can’t count on any of the court systems. They’re all corrupt.” She told me that she was a January 6th defendant and had to get permission to be able to travel to the rally; she’s now involved in registering people to vote and organizing rides to the polls for the elderly.

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