HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A former Philadelphia election official who has told of enduring death threats for defending the city's 2020 vote-counting against former President Donald Trump's lies will be nominated for the top election administration post in Pennsylvania by the incoming Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro.
Al Schmidt's coming nomination to be secretary of state, announced Thursday by Shapiro, sets him up to oversee what is expected to be a hard-fought 2024 election in the critical presidential battleground. Schmidt is Shapiro's first Cabinet selection to be revealed ahead of his Jan. 17 inauguration.
Protecting elections and voting rights was central to Shapiro's campaign, as he emphasized his intention to nominate a “pro-Democracy” secretary of state and his role, as attorney general, in fighting efforts in court by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
“Al Schmidt has a proven track record of defending our democracy, protecting voting rights and standing up to extremism — even in the face of grave threats," Shapiro said in a statement.
Schmidt, 51, is a Republican, fitting in with Shapiro's theme of fashioning a bipartisan administration in politically divided Pennsylvania.
Schmidt is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a good-government group in Philadelphia. Before he joined the group a year ago, Schmidt spent a decade as a Republican elected to the three-member board that oversees elections in Philadelphia and has worked for the city and state GOP.
On Friday, the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Schmidt will be among 12 people to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Joe Biden in a ceremony at the White House. This is the first time Biden has given the medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian award.
“During the 2020 election, he kept the vote tally going in the face of pressure and efforts to overturn the election,” the White House said.
Holding the post of secretary of state is subject to confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The $165,000-salary job involves overseeing how the state's 67 counties run their elections, giving them guidance and assistance on how to manage it — a task that has grown in complexity with the advent of the state's no-excuse mail-in voting law and conspiracy theorists inspired by Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
The department also administers a long list of professional licensing commissions that report to the department.
In 2020, Schmidt became the face of Philadelphia's protracted vote count when Trump and his campaign repeatedly claimed that “bad things happen in Philadelphia” and spread lies to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the election in the heavily Democratic city.
With help from Philadelphia, Trump lost Pennsylvania to Biden.
Few, if any, Republicans came to Schmidt's defense during a time when he has said he received Trump-inspired death threats against him and his family that he has called “domestic terrorism.” Rather, the state Republican Party and most state GOP lawmakers sought to stop Pennsylvania's electoral votes from being awarded to Biden.
No lawsuit, prosecutor or election worker has produced evidence of widespread fraud in Philadelphia's 2020 election.
In the wake of the election, Schmidt testified in front of a U.S. Senate committee and the congressional committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
He has since become a prominent critic of what he has called the “vicious cycle” of conspiracy theorists and politicians who spread lies about elections.
The falsehoods prompted deceived constituents to demand that politicians do something — usually resulting in a push to restrict voting rights and violent threats to election workers, Schmidt has said.
Schmidt said in an interview that he has several aims for improving elections in Pennsylvania.
One revolves around “bigger, broader things,” like making it as easy as possible for people to register and vote, and ensuring that those votes are counted — a nod to technicalities that have resulted in thousands of mail-in ballots from legal, eligible voters getting thrown out.
“I think that’s sort of a North Star in a lot of this and guides you when determining how to improve the electoral process for voters,” Schmidt said.
More specifically, he said the law must be changed to allow counties to process mail-in ballots before an election day to produce results sooner and avoid a protracted post-election vote count that was exploited in 2020 by Trump and allies to spread misinformation about fraud.
Pennsylvania is one of very few states that provide so little time to process such ballots — but Republican lawmakers have refused to allow it without concessions from Democrats on things like a stricter voter identification law.
It puts Pennsylvania at a “unique disadvantage” when other states produce mail-in ballot results on election night, Schmidt said.
Associated Press White House correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report. Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/timelywriter
Marc Levy, The Associated Press