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How the national push by Trump allies to audit 2020 ballots started quietly in Pennsylvania

People protesting presidential election results attended a "Stop the Steal" rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Nov. 5, 2020.
People protesting presidential election results attended a "Stop the Steal" rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Nov. 5, 2020.GABRIELA BHASKAR

Joe Biden’s presidential victory in Pennsylvania had been certified for weeks when officials in some Republican-leaning counties began receiving strange phone calls from GOP state senators in late December.

The lawmakers, who had been publicly questioning Biden's win, had a request: Would the counties agree to a voluntary audit of their ballots?

The push to conduct unofficial election audits in multiple counties, described in interviews and emails obtained by The Washington Post, served as a last-ditch effort by allies of former president Donald Trump to undercut Biden's win after failing in the courts and the state legislature.

The previously unreported lobbying foreshadowed a playbook now in use in Arizona and increasingly being sought in other communities across the county as Trump supporters clamor for reviews of the ballots cast last fall, citing false claims that the vote was corrupted by fraud. The former president's backers argue that any evidence of problems they can uncover will prove the election system is vulnerable - and could have been manipulated to help Biden win.

The audits are being pushed by a loose affiliation of GOP lawmakers, lawyers and self-described election experts, backed by private fundraising campaigns whose donors are unknown.

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In Pennsylvania, the state senators quietly targeted at least three small counties, all of which Trump had won handily. Their proposal was unorthodox: to have a private company scrutinize the county's ballots, for free - a move outside the official processes used for election challenges.

Only one county is known to have agreed to the senators' request: rural Fulton County, on the Maryland border, where Trump performed better than anywhere else in the state, winning nearly 86% of the roughly 8,000 votes cast.

"I think they thought this was just a small, friendly area. If they could get away with it, they could raise questions about the legitimacy of the election," said Dayton Tweedy, 60, a teacher in Fulton who, with his wife Kimbra, spent months trying to learn more about how the audit was conducted in his community - and why.

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On Dec. 31, in the quiet of the winter holiday, county officials allowed a West Chester, Pa., company called Wake TSI to spend an afternoon recounting about 1,000 mail-in ballots and taking data from county voting machines.

According to a county document obtained by The Post, Wake TSI was "contracted" to a nonprofit group run by Sidney Powell, a pro-Trump lawyer who was in the midst of filing a flurry of lawsuits around the country challenging the election results.

Wake TSI submitted a draft report in February to Fulton officials declaring the election had been "well run" and "conducted in a diligent and effective manner," county documents show.

However, before the final version was posted to the county website, it was revised. The new version included a caveat to the county's otherwise clean bill of health: "This does not indicate that there were no issues with the election, just that they were not the fault of the County Election Commission or County Election Director," it read, before flagging potential problems with the county voting machines and other aspects of the election.

The report has been circulated on social media by Trump allies who have sought to claim that voting machines are vulnerable to hacking and fraud.

County officials did not respond to requests for comment on who made the changes to the report. Wake TSI and Powell did not respond to requests for comment.

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The early attempt to launch off-the-books audits in Pennsylvania counties shows the relentlessness of the campaign by Trump's allies to overturn the election - an assault that began before the polls closed and has only expanded in the months since a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, trying to prevent Biden's win from being formalized.

The full scope of the endeavor to undermine the 2020 results is still coming into public view. On Friday, newly released emails revealed that Trump called the Republican president of the Arizona state Senate late last year to thank her for trying to prove fraud in her state. Around the same time frame, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows was pressuring the Justice Department to investigate unfounded claims about vulnerabilities in the election, the New York Times first reported Saturday.

At a conference in Texas last weekend, Powell said she still believes Trump should be "reinstated" as president, an idea that has also transfixed the former president.

One of the Pennsylvania state senators who pushed for the county audits, Republican Doug Mastriano, told Trump at a one-on-one meeting in New York last month that he could engineer an audit in his state, according to a person familiar with the meeting, who spoke the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussion. Mastriano did not respond to requests for comment.

Wake TSI has played a key role in the audit of the Maricopa County, Ariz., ballots - hired as a subcontractor to handle the hand recount portion of the process.

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Last week, Mastriano and other Pennsylvania lawmakers toured the site in Phoenix where the recount is underway. He told a Wall Street Journal reporter that he believed a similar audit should be initiated in Pennsylvania.

"For the sake. . . of our constitutional republic, and for the sake of people's peace of mind, let's just do it," he said. "Let's pick a few counties and put people's minds at rest."

On Friday, Trump issued a statement praising Mastriano for leading the trip to Arizona and calling on the Pennsylvania Senate to heed his call.

The former president added: "The people of Pennsylvania and America deserve to know the truth."

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The senators' request to audit county results in Pennsylvania came at the end of nearly two months of tumult in the Keystone State that followed the Nov. 3 election.

Early returns on election night showed Trump ahead in the state that had helped him win the White House in 2016. But a Pennsylvania law that Republicans resisted changing barred counties from opening more than 2.5 million mail-in ballots until Election Day. As a result, it took days to tally all the votes, particularly in Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where many Biden supporters had voted by mail to avoid visiting polls during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the votes were counted, Biden closed Trump's lead and then pulled ahead - a phenomenon that political experts had predicted would occur. Four days after the election, major news organizations declared Biden the winner of Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes. On Nov. 24, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, formally certified Biden's over-80,000-vote victory.

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But the slow count offered Trump an opening. On Nov. 7, Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and other allies held a freewheeling news conference in the parking lot of a Philadelphia landscaping business. Giuliani declared the election was being stolen from Trump in the city, which he said had "a sad history of voter fraud."

Giuliani later personally appeared in court for the first time in nearly three decades to argue to a federal judge that he should disqualify about 680,000 votes cast in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh because, Giuliani claimed, Republican observers had not been given sufficient ability to watch the count.

The judge rejected the suit, comparing the legal theories stitched together by Trump's campaign to "Frankenstein's monster." On appeal, a three-judge panel - all of them appointed by Republicans - also rejected the challenge to Pennsylvania's vote. "Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so," wrote U.S. Circuit Court Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee, for the group.

Even so, Trump's complaints found fertile ground in Pennsylvania's Republican-led General Assembly.

Mastriano, a retired Army colonel elected to the Senate in 2019 from rural Franklin County, was at the vanguard. Three days after the election, he called for a recount in any precinct where "questionable actions were demonstrated."

On Nov. 25, Mastriano and other Senate Republicans organized a public hearing to air Giuliani's claims of fraud in a hotel ballroom in Gettysburg. Trump planned to attend but canceled at the last minute, instead calling in to the meeting by cellphone. "We have to turn the election over," he declared, as Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis held up a phone to the microphone for the room to hear.

Afterward, Mastriano and others in the group piled into vans and cars and drove to Washington, where they met in the Oval Office with Trump, according to people familiar with the meeting. (Mastriano was forced to abruptly leave after the coronavirus test he took when he arrived at the White House came back positive.)

Two days later, Mastriano introduced a resolution asking that the certification of Biden's win be withdrawn and the state legislature be allowed to appoint its own electors instead.

He has told reporters that he and Trump grew close in these weeks, speaking at least 15 times by telephone. As Trump continued to push to overturn the election, the Associated Press reported that Mastriano forwarded an invitation to Pennsylvania Senate Republicans to attend a White House luncheon with Trump on Dec. 23 - what would be his second meeting with the president in less than a month.

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As December grew to a close, Trump had few options left in Pennsylvania.

A legislative committee in the state had rejected a resolution to conduct an immediate audit of election results statewide, and the legislative session expired without consideration of Mastriano's proposal to appoint electors.

Days before Congress was scheduled to finalize Biden's win in Washington on Jan. 6, the elections director of Cumberland County, a Republican-leaning county on the outskirts of Harrisburg, emailed her counterparts around the state.

"Did anyone else get a request from Senator Judy Ward about auditing your voting machines?" she wrote on Dec. 30, according to a copy of the message obtained by The Post.

Ward, a Republican state senator who took office in 2019, is an ally of Mastriano, and shared the dais with him at the Gettysburg hearing.

A clerk in tiny Jefferson County, 150 miles away, responded: "Jefferson received a similar request but ours was from Senator Elect Cris Dush."

Fulton County elections director Patti Hess replied simply: "Yes."

In Cumberland, the request was received with wariness.

Vince DiFilippo, one of the county's two Republican commissioners, said in an interview that Ward called him personally and asked if Cumberland would be willing to participate in a "voluntary" audit.

Trump won Cumberland County by nearly 11 points, a hefty margin, though smaller than his 18-point victory in 2016. But DiFilippo said the results made sense to him given Trump's eroding suburban support, noting that other Republicans who shared the ballot with Trump had done well in the county.

DiFilippo said he told Ward that he didn't think an audit was necessary, but he promised to discuss the request with Cumberland's other two commissioners.

Jean Foschi, the county's Democratic commissioner, said in an interview that she was confused and dismayed by the request, particularly since the state already conducted formal routine election reviews.

"It was like this rogue thing," she said. "Those election machines are state and federally certified. Why would we let a private company come in and mess around with them?"

Gary Eichelberger, the Republican chairman of the commission, said in an email to The Post that he felt "such requests need to be brought to the board openly and not back-doored."

The commissioners said they informed Ward that if she wanted to request an audit, she should make a formal and public inquiry for them to consider. She never followed up, they said.

"Maybe the Trump faction was trying to prove a point or prove what they felt was maybe some voter fraud," DiFilippo said. "I can't speak for other counties, but it sure as hell didn't happen in Cumberland County."

Ward did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Dush, who requested the audit in Jefferson County.

It is not clear how many counties fielded the requests for voluntary election audits. A spokeswoman for Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Veronica Degraffenreid, the state's top election official, said her office is not aware of any county other than Fulton agreeing to participate.

Fulton officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why they let the audit proceed. But in a letter she submitted to Degraffenreid last month describing the process, Hess, the county election chief, said the audit had been requested by "various members of the Pennsylvania legislature."

"Since we believe in transparency, we agreed to let them come in and do the audit," she wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Post. Hess added that she was with the ballots at all times and the county's IT director stayed with the machines.

One of the county's three commissioners - Republican Randy Bunch - was present as well, she wrote, moving back and forth between two rooms where the audit was being conducted.

In her letter, Hess also noted that Wake officials had signed a document promising not to "disturb or manipulate any equipment."

The Dec. 31 document included a handwritten notation at the bottom that stated that the audit was "set" by Mastriano and Wake was "contracted to Defending the Republic," according to a copy obtained by The Post. Hess told The Post in an email Friday that the document was submitted to her by Wake founder Gene Kern after she asked him to specify who sent him to the county. Kern did not respond to a request for comment.

Defending the Republic is a group founded by Powell, according to its website, which has raised money to support the legal challenges she filed against the election results. Wake's link to Powell and Mastriano's role was first reported by the Arizona Mirror.

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The residents of Fulton County initially had no idea that their ballots had been scrutinized.

The first indication came during a Jan. 5 meeting of the county commissioners, five days after the audit.

Minutes from the meeting show that the three commissioners had discussed a request by a "Third Party Analysis Team" to examine the 2020 presidential results on Dec. 29. At the time, Democratic commissioner Paula Shives said she would only agree if the voting machines were not removed from county offices and if she could be present for the review, according to the minutes.

There had been no vote taken, the minutes show, but the inspection had been allowed to proceed anyway - without Shives's knowledge or attendance.

Shives did not respond to requests for comment.

The following week, comissioners discussed the Wake audit again, minutes show. This time, commissioners took a formal vote to give the company new access to the county's absentee ballots. Bunch - who was well known locally for commissioning an eight-foot-high mural of Trump along the main road in the county seat of McConnellsburg - voted in favor. So did commission chairman Stuart Ulsh. Shives voted in opposition, insisting "anyone wanting to review election materials should go through the legal process and obtain a subpoena."

The dust-up led to a short story in the Fulton County News.

The Tweedys, the local couple, read the piece with puzzlement. Both had previously helped run county elections - Kimbra, 59, as an elected inspector and Dayton as a clerk. They said they believed Fulton's elections were secure and well administered.

On Jan. 21, Kimbra Tweedy submitted a letter to the commissioners with a list of questions. "Exactly who made the initial decision to contact Wake Technology Services?" she wrote. "If there were no discrepancies, what is the reason for auditing the mail-in ballots? What costs would be associated with this audit, and who would pay them?"

In response, the couple said they were invited to a public meeting where Ulsh explained that there had been no discrepancies reported in the county's vote, but that the audit had been requested by Ward and Mastriano and had been free to the county.

"We asked, 'What was the rationale?' " Dayton Tweedy said. "He just said, 'Transparency.' "

"I was in there during the last presidential election, and they never audited it. Suddenly, they're auditing this election," Kimbra Tweedy said. "It just seemed to me, why are they auditing it, when they overwhelmingly certified it?"

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As Fulton County contended with public questions about the audit, the consequences of Trump's attacks on the integrity of the election were on stark display.

On Jan. 6, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from formally certifying Biden's win. Bunch, the Fulton commissioner who had been present for the ballot review, attended rallies in Washington that day, according to photos he posted on Facebook. None show him inside the building.

Mastriano was also in Washington - he posted a note on Facebook offering bus tickets to bring people to D.C. for the event, local media reported at the time. Recent videos have emerged that show him walking in a crowd as a man removes a bike rack blocking a sidewalk. Mastriano has said he respected police lines and that he and his wife departed when it became clear the event was no longer peaceful.

Late that night, after the marauders were cleared from the building, dozens of GOP lawmakers still voted to challenge the final electoral college vote in Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Two months later, the Republican president of the Arizona state Senate announced that she had hired a group of companies to conduct a new audit and recount of the presidential vote in Maricopa County, the state's largest jurisdiction.

Among them: Wake TSI, which cited its experience conducting a hand recount in Fulton County, Pa.

Hess, the Fulton County elections director, told The Post in April that the company's employees had been "very nice and professional" but that no report had been released of their findings.

Documents obtained by The Post, however, show that the company submitted a 74-page draft report to Ulsh, the chairman of the county commissioners, on Feb. 22.

That report concluded that the county had "no anomalous or unusual incidents reported during the election process" and that the election was "well run, followed all Commonwealth and Federal guidelines, and was conducted in a diligent and effective manner."

The draft identified two "issues of note," neither impacting results. In two places, the draft identified the person who had requested the audit in Fulton as "Pennsylvania State Senator Marsicano" - an apparent misspelling of Mastriano.

In May, the county quietly posted a final version of the report to its website. This version indicated that Mastriano and Ward had been "aware" of the audit but omitted that they had requested it. New warnings of possible problems had been added. Instead of just two "issues of note," the final report cited five - including three related to Dominion Voting Systems, an election machine company that has been the target of unfounded conspiracy theories by Trump's supporters since November.

"While these may seem minor the impact on an election can be huge," read the final report, another line not found in the draft.

County officials and Wake did not respond to questions about why the draft was rewritten. A Dominion spokeswoman declined to comment.

Patrick Byrne, the former chairman of Overstock.com, seized on the report, sharing it on Telegram with Trump supporters fervently monitoring the Arizona audit. Byrne, who has been raising money to fund private election audits, had met with Trump and Powell in the Oval Office in late December to discuss potentially using the military to seize voting machines for analysis, as The Post previously reported.

Last month, Wake ended its involvement with the Arizona recount. An audit spokesman said the company's contract there ended in mid-May, but that the techniques it had developed are still in use.

In Fulton, county officials may now have to pay to replace all of their voting machines, a pricey consequence of turning them over for review to an uncertified company handle that Arizona officials are weighing as well.

For their part, Dayton and Kimbra Tweedy said they were glad they rang alarm bells about the election audit - but saddened that their community might have been used in some kind of plan to undermine the vote.

"Democracy is democracy and the rule of law is the rule of law," Dayton Tweedy said. "It's not right for anyone to be questioning the legitimacy of the election without any kind of evidence - or even evidence to the contrary."

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The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Alice Crites and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.