On Dec. 14, 2020, 20 prominent Pennsylvania Democrats gathered in Harrisburg — in a ceremony shorn of some of its pomp and circumstance because of COVID-19, but witnessed by a gaggle of reporters — to cast the state's Electoral College votes for the president-elect, Joe Biden. They dropped their ballots in a wooden box designed by Benjamin Franklin.
Then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who had certified that Biden defeated Donald Trump in Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes, told the gathering, "Today you will follow the tradition of the first Electoral College that convened in Pennsylvania 231 years ago and cast your votes based on the outcome of that election, to carry out the will of the voters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
But at another undisclosed location in Harrisburg, a band of 20 top state Republicans had other ideas. Meeting at what they said was "the request of the Trump campaign," the GOP luminaries — including two men now running for governor, former Congressman Lou Barletta and consultant Charlie Gerow — cast what they called "a procedural vote" that claimed Trump as the winner. The documentation claimed the ballots were cast just in case a court ruling or some other proceeding overturned Biden's victory.
The existence of this vote was not a secret. It was even heralded by the Pennsylvania Republican Party in a news release, and mentioned by the Philadelphia Inquirer that day. But what wasn't yet known on Dec. 14, 2020, was the full extent of plotting among Trump's inner circle to have Vice President Mike Pence and Congress somehow invalidate Biden victories in battleground states like Pennsylvania — or that a violent pro-Trump mob would overrun the Capitol on Jan. 6, in an attempted coup to stop the certification of the legitimate electors.
A sinister revelation
Now, a revelation that Republicans in five other states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia — took the Dec. 14 gambit a step further is placing the entire operation in a new light. By sending paperwork to Congress and the National Archives that falsely claims, without qualification, that they were the "duly elected" members of the Electoral College in states where Biden got the most votes, the entire operation looks more sinister. A recent report in Politico found the House select committee on Jan. 6 — which is weighing whether the actions of Trump and his aides were part of a conspiracy to obstruct Congress — is looking at some of this paperwork.
Beginning with the Politico report, the flames of controversy have been fanned by nightly updates on the bogus certification letters by MSNBC's highly rated nighttime host Rachel Maddow, who has noted not just similar language in the letters filed with the National Archives but even similar font styles — suggesting the effort was centrally coordinated.
Right now, there are a lot more questions than answers, including:
• Who exactly in the Trump campaign requested that the Pennsylvania Republican Party, and presumably the GOP electors in other states, hold these votes and submit documentation, which includes the formal signatures of the Trump electors casting these ultimately meaningless ballots? Was Trump himself — as well as others in his White House and campaign inner circles — aware of this scheme? And how did his allies envision ultimately putting these election claims to use?
• Although Pennsylvania Republicans seem to have wisely hedged their bets, did GOP officials and would-be Trump electors in those five states making false "duly elected" claims cross a line and commit a criminal act such as forgery or fraud?
• What actually happened behind closed doors in Harrisburg on Dec. 14, 2020? Specifically, why did as many as seven veteran party insiders who ran as Trump electors — such as former Chester County Sheriff Bunny Welsh, ex-party chair Rob Gleason, longtime GOP big shot Bob Asher, and others — ultimately not sign the paperwork, only to be replaced by others?
The road from 12/14 to 1/6
In the December 2020 official Pennsylvania Republican Party statement announcing the "procedural vote," Trump state chair Bernie Comfort cited the precedent of a 1960 vote taken by Democratic electors in Hawaii when the GOP's Richard Nixon was leading the vote count, although Comfort's statement failed to note that Democrat John F. Kennedy actually did win the vote recount there.
"We took this procedural vote to preserve any legal claims that may be presented going forward," Comfort said at that time. "This was in no way an effort to usurp or contest the will of the Pennsylvania voters." The Republican vote was sent to the National Archives but apparently not to the chief judge of Pennsylvania's Middle District, as is normally done and was done with the legitimate Biden tally.
Yet arguably the vote fit into scheming underway in Trump's Washington orbit to do exactly that. As Team Trump lost court case after court case in the late fall of 2020 contesting Biden's victories in key states, the focus shifted to efforts to bully Pence on the dubious legal argument that he could use his power as presiding officer over the Jan. 6 election certification to not accept Biden slates in states such as Pennsylvania. Ultimately, 145 Republicans — 138 House members and seven senators — voted unsuccessfully that night to reject the Keystone State electors, a scenario that could have put the alternate slate in play.
Now, there is mounting evidence that the House select committee is looking at the role these alternate slates played in a broader plot — and, possibly, one that crossed the line into a criminal conspiracy — to disrupt the Jan. 6 certification. This includes whether the deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill was part of this scheme after nonviolent maneuvers failed.
Meadows: 'I love it!'
In its recent memo seeking criminal contempt charges against Mark Meadows, Trump's chief of staff at the time of the insurrection, the House committee said, "Meadows received text messages and emails regarding apparent Republican efforts in certain States to send alternate slates of electors to Congress." The committee's referral — citing evidence uncovered in its months of so-far behind-closed-doors investigation — said that when a Congress member told Meadows this scheme was "highly controversial," Trump's top aide replied: "I love it!" The committee also said it has a Team Trump email from Nov. 7, 2020 — the day the TV networks called the election for Biden — that alternate slates of electors would be part of "a direct and collateral attack" on the Democrat's win at the ballot box.
Just under two months later, the collateral damage from this unprecedented effort to contest an election victory around a Big Lie of nonexistent voter fraud was five people dead or dying on the grounds of the seat of a badly tarnished U.S. government. On Dec. 14, 2020, the alternate votes, like the one held in Harrisburg, were ignored because they looked ridiculous and pathetic.
But now we know better.
These false-pretense certifications matter for two reasons. The first involves getting to the bottom of what really happened on Jan. 6, 2021 — and what did a president know and when did he know it? Investigators are trying to learn whether Team Trump's plans amounted to an attempted coup — with talk of invoking the Insurrection Act, shutting down the Capitol before a Biden certification, and seizing ballots. In that scenario, these bogus electoral votes could have been inserted into the jigsaw puzzle of autocracy.
But arguably, these bizarro-world electoral votes matter even more as America braces for 2024. In the 2020 election, Republicans largely lacked the legal mechanisms that would have been needed to make these pro-Trump electoral votes in states where Biden won actually matter — so there's a concerted effort to change that. In the months after Jan. 6, GOP lawmakers in at least eight states enacted laws that moved more control over election results to more partisan bodies like state legislatures. Additional extreme measures are still being debated ahead of November's midterms and the 2024 race for president.
In December 2020, the idea that state lawmakers could reject the presidential electors of the candidate who won fairly and squarely at the ballot box and replace them with electors from their own party on trumped-up grounds was too far out for most Americans to take seriously. After Jan. 6, it's no laughing matter. There must be consequences for the people who actually thought this scheme could work in the 2020 contest, or else democracy may be murdered in broad daylight on or about Jan. 6, 2025.
Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.