JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Gary Vaughn does not trust Democrats. He does not trust mail-in voting. He does not fully trust the operations at his local polling place. And on Election Day, he has a plan to take things into his own hands.
“I live maybe 400 feet from a polling location,” said Vaughn. “I plan on being there all day, just watching.”
Vaughn, 65, wearing a T-shirt depicting a handgun underneath the words “Trump 45,” was one of thousands of people waiting for the president to appear on an airport tarmac for a rally here this week, in a crowd electric with defiance.
For months, Trump has been warning that the election is tilted against him, that Democrats are conspiring to steal his victory. It’s a message that has been embraced by other Republican officials and seeped down to voters like Vaughn, who is heeding Trump’s call to keep an eye on the polls and guard against a problem — voter fraud — that experts say is exceedingly rare.
Even more rare is the effort by a sitting president to traffic in conspiracy theories about a pillar of American democracy — free and fair elections — that experts warn could have lasting damage. Nowhere has the president been as specific about the threat he perceives as in Pennsylvania, a state that has become a battleground for voting procedures because the outcome could tip the election.
A year after state lawmakers from both parties expanded Pennsylvania’s use of mail-in ballots, Trump’s campaign has gone to court seeking to limit the use of drop boxes and to push for the disqualification of certain ballots. Trump has spoken ominously of “bad things” in Philadelphia, urged voters to be poll watchers as part of an “army for Trump,” and seized on a report of nine discarded ballots in one county that local officials chalked up to a training mistake.
“In Pennsylvania, Trump’s strategy is like a Hail Mary for the campaign,” said Rick Hasan, a law professor who specializes in election law at University of California Irvine. “It’s going to be very difficult for them to win in the Electoral College without Pennsylvania, and with Trump behind in the polls, I think he’s looking for ways to influence the rules, especially for counting mail-in ballots, as a potential basis for post-election litigation or other concerns about how the election is run.”
Last month, at a rally in Middletown, near the state capital, Trump claimed of Democrats that the “only way they can win Pennsylvania, frankly, is to cheat on the ballots.”
And while the president did not repeat that claim at the rally here on Tuesday, the logic tracked for Mike Krzanowsky, 69, who took in the festival-like atmosphere, with people holding balloon-sized bags of popcorn or wrapped in a flag depicting Trump as Captain America, as the sunset slipped from the sky.
“If this election goes the wrong way — the wrong way being Biden-Harris — then you know there has to be massive fraud,” Krzanowsky, a retired unionized operating engineer, said.
Democrats and other critics of Trump accuse the president and his allies of manufacturing this kind of distrust so he can use it for his political benefit — either to buttress a challenge to election results or to explain away a potential loss.
“It is a willful, malicious, and malignant effort — a willful effort on the part of the president and some of his acolytes who sow chaos, and to undermine, without justification, without rationale, without any historical evidence, to undermine the integrity of our election system,” said Tom Ridge, a Republican who is the former governor of Pennsylvania but has endorsed Democrat Joe Biden.
“I don’t think he’s worried about fraud,” Ridge added. “I think he’s worried about losing.”
Democrats are mobilizing to educate voters about making sure their ballots count, and the Biden campaign says it has thousands of lawyers and volunteers working on voter protection and a $100 million voter education program in place. A spokesman pointed out that some of Trump’s rhetoric is merely that.
“While we take any threat by President Trump to interfere in the democratic process seriously, overheated reports about chaos at the polls on Election Day threaten to further Trump’s clear goal of discouraging Americans from voting,” said Biden spokesman Michael Gwin.
Biden himself has made an accusation that mirrors Trump’s in Middletown: “The only way we lose this is by the chicanery going on relative to polling places,” he said in Erie last week, before noting that he would still accept the results of the election.
In a statement, Trump’s campaign did not respond to questions about his comments on Pennsylvania or his critics' concerns, and pointed instead to Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that Biden not concede on election night.
But experts say the degree to which Trump has stoked distrust in the results of an election that has yet to happen is deeply unusual for a presidential candidate and could carry serious consequences if he loses. Richard Nixon kept his misgivings about his razor-thin 1960 loss to himself until he wrote his memoirs years later; former vice president Al Gore ultimately conceded the 2000 election despite the contentious battle over the results in Florida.
“Americans have been very trusting of elections — this really runs against the grain of American electoral history,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University.
Pennsylvania offers a window into how the Trump campaign has sought to play on baseless concerns about voter fraud to push lawsuits and poll watching efforts that his critics warn could infringe on ballot access — or at least raise doubts about the election results.
“The president has really been engaged in these conspiracy theory fever dreams and then you have a state legislature here in Pennsylvania trying to use the mechanics of government to try to find examples that don’t exist,” said state Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat and a surrogate for Biden. “What they are trying to do is diminish people’s faith and trust in our most important right in a democracy, and that’s a citizen’s right to vote.”
Last week, a federal judge threw out several efforts by the Trump campaign to make changes in the elections process, saying the campaign had failed to prove the existence of impending fraud. It had sought to ban drop boxes, to allow ballots to be thrown out over signature discrepancies, and to allow poll watchers who aren’t residents of the counties in which they plan to observe.
“At most, they have pieced together a sequence of uncertain assumptions,” wrote US District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan.
Republicans in the state Legislature have tried to support the campaign’s efforts. They appealed a ruling from the State Supreme Court that would allow ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 but not received until Nov. 6 to be counted. They also considered creating a committee on “election integrity” but scrapped the plan after Democrats accused them of trying to steal the election.
Democrats are worried the Trump campaign will continue to sow doubt and try to limit the counting of votes despite those legal setbacks.
“They’ve failed on the legal front, but the only thing left is to create chaos,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist with the Voter Project, a new group that is trying to push back.
Even though courts have rejected the campaign’s concerns, worries about fraud persist among county chairs and rank-and-file voters, interviews this week showed.
“I think that voters are concerned about that in Allegheny County,” said Kevin Tatulyan, the executive director of the county party there, citing the mailing of 28,000 incorrect ballots in his area.
And mistrust was on display in Johnstown this week.
“It’s seems like every day they’re finding ballots thrown away,” warned Todd Umbel, of Vanderbilt. “Who’s to say who’s filling out those ballots?”
According to a poll from NBC News in late September, only 14 percent of Americans believe the election will be conducted in a fair and equal way; Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say they were either not too confident or not at all confident the election would be fair, at 65 percent to 49 percent.
That could have real consequences for democracy, experts warn.
“When you erode trust, you’re taking away society’s immune system, you’re making a society more likely to react badly … to problems coming at it,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You open it up to much more deadly ills.”
Debra Keim, a licensed practical nurse from Somerset, said she was convinced Trump would win — and shared a dark vision for if he does not.
“What’ll happen will make Antifa look like the Micky Mouse Club,” said Keim. “I think it would be a bloodbath. Why do you think the gun sales went up?”
Other supporters of the president like Umbel, however, said they would accept the results if he lost — something Trump himself has not yet been willing to do.
“I’d accept the results just like anybody else,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”