TALLAHASSEE — One of the central players in President Donald Trump’s effort to sow doubt in the American election system used to be Florida’s top law enforcement official.
Pam Bondi, who served as attorney general from 2011 until 2019, has been an outspoken figure in Trump’s push to de-legitimize the vote counting in Pennsylvania. At a Wednesday news conference in Philadelphia, Bondi appeared alongside Trump lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to decry what they said was voter fraud.
“We’ve won Pennsylvania, and we want every vote to be counted in a fair way,” Bondi, a Republican, told reporters. The first half of what the former attorney general said is false: Trump, the Republican candidate, may still win Pennsylvania, but he has not yet.
Bondi, a Temple Terrace native and former assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County, grew close to Trump after she became attorney general. In 2013, the then-businessman sent Bondi’s political committee a $25,000 donation from the Donald J. Trump foundation, his charity. The contribution was made after her office started getting legal complaints about Trump’s line of educational seminars. While the New York attorney general pursued charges, Bondi’s office chose not to. Both Trump and Bondi have denied the donation was improper, but Trump later paid a $2,500 penalty to the Internal Revenue Service in 2016 and refunded his foundation $25,000 from his personal account because the contribution violated tax laws. In 2018, he closed down the foundation.
A prominent Trump surrogate during his impeachment battle last year, Bondi, 54, gave a blistering speech at the Republican National Convention attacking Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden for his alleged nepotism.
Claims from Bondi, Giuliani and Trump of wide scale fraud in Pennsylvania have come as the president’s margin over Biden in the state has dwindled in recent days. There is no evidence of fraud. Experts have long expected the votes counted last in Pennsylvania to be Democratic-leaning because of the order in which the state counts mail-in ballots. In this election, which was conducted amid a pandemic, millions more Democrats than Republicans chose to vote by mail.
The Keystone State, which is worth 20 electoral college votes, is crucial to Trump’s re-election hopes. If the president loses there, Biden would clinch a majority of electoral college votes, putting him in line for the presidency.
Outside of unspecific claims of fraud, Bondi’s core complaint about Pennsylvania voting has had to do with the Trump campaign’s right to observe the count. In a lawsuit heard by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the Trump team argued campaign officials have not been able to witness the official processing of ballots at the Philadelphia Convention Center from a close enough distance. (Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold.)
Philadelphia County election officials argued in court that they needed substantial space to do the work of counting hundreds of thousands of ballots during a pandemic. That’s why campaign observers have had to watch the vote-counting from a distance of several yards away, the officials said. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party filed a brief in support of this argument.
On Thursday, Bondi’s team won a victory before that court when Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon reversed a lower court decision and allowed campaign representatives to witness the vote counting from six feet away.
During a Thursday appearance on Fox News' Fox and Friends program, Bondi said the campaign’s previous inability to closely observe the ballot counting made the environment ripe for fraud. She did not provide evidence.
“For every vote that came in late, that was postmarked late...that discounts every legal vote that came in,” Bondi said. “That means the good residents who are all supporting us in Pennsylvania, their votes don’t count by these fake ballots that are coming in late...They’re not letting us watch the process.”
“Pam, did you just say ‘fake ballots?’” the program’s host, Steve Doocy, then asked.
“There could be. That’s the problem. If they’re letting — we don’t know, Steve,” Bondi said.
So far, there have been no reports of late or fake ballots being counted in Pennsylvania. In part because of a split 4-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Pennsylvania will count votes that arrive up to three days after Election Day, but were postmarked by Nov. 3.
Regardless, election experts say it would be extraordinarily difficult to pull off the kind of widespread fraud being alleged by Bondi and the Trump team — particularly in a state as large as Pennsylvania.
“I don’t think that there are voter fraud conspiracies that involve 10,000 voters,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor of law at Stetson University College of Law.
Torres-Spelliscy noted that voter fraud of any kind is extraordinarily rare. The proximity of campaign representatives to the actual votes being tallied wouldn’t do much to change that reality, she said.
“Because you’re looking for something that doesn’t exist, I’m not sure it really matters how excruciatingly close you are to another person,” the law professor said.
Still, Trump’s team asked the court to order Philadelphia officials to set aside “all envelopes and other ballot materials” that have been a part of the count so far so the Trump campaign can have the chance to see whether election procedure has been followed. In her opinion, Cannon, the judge, noted that campaigns do not have the right to challenge individual ballots as they are being counted. For now, campaigns may only observe the process.
Trump has been casting doubt on Philadelphia procedures for months. At the first presidential debate against Biden in September, Trump said Republican poll watchers had been “thrown out” of a polling place in Philadelphia on the first day of in-person early voting. According to state law, poll watchers in Pennsylvania are only active on Election Day, per PolitiFact.
The controversy was also, as the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, avoidable. Because of a partisan stalemate between the state’s GOP-controlled state Legislature and the Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania never changed its laws to allow for the pre-Election Day counting of mail-in ballots. Now those overwhelmingly blue votes are being counted last, giving Biden the appearance of a comeback. In reality, he may never have trailed.
Bondi couldn’t be reached for this story.