This Pa. activist is the source of false and flawed election claims gaining traction across the country

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

On Jan. 6, 2021, as former President Donald Trump rallied his supporters, he used a statistic that, though false, was making the rounds: “In Pennsylvania, you had 205,000 more votes than you had voters,” he screamed, throwing his arms wide open in front of thousands of angry followers. “This is a mathematical impossibility unless you want to say it’s a total fraud.”

The number appears to be the work of Heather Honey, a Pennsylvania-based “election integrity” investigator whose research has achieved a remarkable level of national salience among the far right, despite being replete with errors. The 205,000 figure, for example, is “false” according to the Department of Justice, and was based on incomplete data the state says can’t be used for this type of analysis. Honey herself has revised the discrepancy downward. While Honey’s current estimate is almost half of what it once was, it’s still inaccurate and the original number is also still routinely cited as fact.

“There were 202,377 MORE ‘votes’ cast, than actual REAL VOTERS THAT VOTED,” reads a November 2023 post on X from a popular rightwing account. It was reposted more than 13,000 times.

Honey has been among the most effective advocates for right-wing election talking points. Time after time, her research has fed into viral allegations about election integrity, fueling conservative pressure campaigns, forcing fact-checkers and public officials to attempt to piece together a more accurate picture and undermining confidence in long-trusted election practices. Often, her conclusions are misleading or based on incomplete information.

In the past year, working with a network of election integrity groups organized by conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell, Honey has had perhaps the most success with her latest research: a 29-page report on the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, sent to Republican secretaries of state and legislators. Her information appears to have influenced the decision of several member states to withdraw from ERIC, an interstate program that election officials widely regard as the nation’s best tool to keep voter rolls up-to-date and free of bloat.

An analysis by Votebeat and Spotlight PA found the report’s conclusions are false, often based on out-of-context examples, and that her sweeping generalizations are frequently not backed by the data she presents. Presented with Votebeat’s and Spotlight PA’s findings — the product of redoing her many calculations and fact-checking the analysis she has offered to public officials — Honey defended her work.

Despite how widespread her research has become, Honey described herself in emails to Votebeat and Spotlight PA as “an ordinary citizen working hard to do what I can to restore confidence in elections.”

When asked for a final comment, she accused Votebeat of “slander” and personal attacks. “Who is pressuring you to write this hit piece? What is your goal?”

The way that Honey relies on real-but-incomplete data is a hallmark of those who spread misinformation, experts say.

“The fundamental misconception people have about misinformation is that misinformation is about the facts in front of you,” said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public who studies mis- and disinformation. Instead, Caulfield said, popular misinformation often relies on leaving out crucial details.

Calling it “misrepresented evidence,” Caulfield likened Honey’s report to a prosecutor accurately telling a jury that they discovered a murder weapon in a suspect’s possession but failing to mention that the fingerprints on it belonged to someone else.

“You can’t look at that and say, ‘The knife is real, we found the knife,’ but not look at it and mention you found fingerprints that would undermine the importance of the evidence,” he said.

Activated by 2020

As Honey tells her own origin story, she was standing in line at her polling place in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 3, 2020, behind an older couple when her journey to election integrity investigator began.

“It really kind of struck me that, you know, this woman who just waited in line for an hour was told, ‘Oh, you have to cast a provisional ballot,’” Honey said on Mitchell’s “Who’s Counting” podcast in May 2022. She told Mitchell she wondered if the provisional would be rejected. “So it just got me a little bit worked up and I went home and I started doing, I mean, what I do.”

Honey has operated Haystack Investigations — a private investigations and supply-chain auditing consultancy — since 2017, her LinkedIn profile shows. Her website offers services ranging from supply chain audits to social media investigations.

Using what she’s described as “open-source investigation” skills, Honey began researching Pennsylvania’s election laws and requesting data from the Pennsylvania Department of State in November 2020. Soon after, she decided to reach out to her state representative, Frank Ryan, a Republican, with her findings.

“I said, ‘Look, here are the things that I found,’” she told Mitchell. One of those things was “that there were more ballots reported than what we found in the voter files.”

Honey told Mitchell that Ryan gathered other representatives together to show them her work — that is, a calculation purporting to show a discrepancy between the number of ballots cast in the 2020 election and the number of people the Pennsylvania roll recorded as having voted.

Ryan did not respond to an interview request, though Mitchell’s version closely mirrors his public telling of events, and emails — on which Honey is included — show Ryan passed this information onto U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican who was in close contact with Trump at the time. According to the final report of the Jan. 6 committee, Trump would repeat the claim that Pennsylvania had more votes than voters numerous times, which was part of the Department of Justice indictment against him alleging election interference.

Honey told Votebeat and Spotlight PA that Ryan was receiving information from multiple sources at the time, but she did not directly dispute that Trump’s figures originated with her work.

Honey’s latest calculation of the discrepancy, revised after straggling counties uploaded fresher records, sits at around 121,000. Trump cited that number, and Honey’s work directly, in a document he released in January claiming fraud in swing states in 2020.

Still, election administrators in Pennsylvania say this number is based on a flawed analysis.

Voter roll data is constantly updated to account for moves, deaths, and other issues of eligibility, which stops in the weeks just before an election and resumes again immediately after, the Department of State and county election directors explained. The roll also does not contain information about some voters whose identity must legally be kept confidential, such as victims of abuse. In other words, the state’s voter roll at any one point in time doesn’t reflect a complete record of who voted in the last election. But Honey’s analysis treats the roll as if it does.

For example, if a voter in Philadelphia moved to New Jersey the day after the 2020 election, the Philadelphia Board of Elections would cancel their registration. And even though they legitimately cast a ballot in Philadelphia on Election Day, their voter history would not appear in the voter roll system after that because they have been removed from the rolls.

Given these limitations, the Department of State told Votebeat and Spotlight PA that Honey’s method of analysis is “not an accurate way to reconcile votes cast to the number of voters who participated in any individual election” and that the system “was not intended” for this purpose. The state pushed back on the figure at the time, but that didn’t stop it from spreading.

As Honey’s research gained traction, other election-integrity advocates began to take notice and solicit her for work. She was paid as a subcontractor in Arizona for Cyber Ninjas, the company hired by that state’s Senate to investigate the 2020 election in Maricopa County. That investigation ultimately did not prove any fraud. Documents from it — obtained by American Oversight and the Arizona Republic — show she was a “manager” and billed tens of thousands of dollars for her work, though it is unclear how much she was eventually paid.

Cyber Ninjas subsequently went out of business, but Honey’s work continued.

Days before the 2022 midterm elections, Honey released a report — through her election integrity research organization, Verity Vote — claiming nearly a quarter of a million ballots in Pennsylvania had been sent to “unverified” voters. Ryan again picked up the information in a letter to the Department of State. It was then echoed by Trump, and the conservative website the Gateway Pundit pointed to it as evidence that the election was fraudulent and should be decertified.

The report “flagrantly misrepresents” how the system works, the Department of State — which rebutted it after it gained traction online — said at the time. Voters were labeled as “NV” or “not verified” in the state’s voter management system, but as the Associated Press reported, the label is for internal workflow purposes and typically means the identification provided by the voter is still being verified by county workers so their ballots can be counted.

A more refined ERIC criticism

In 2022, as ERIC became the subject of right-wing fury, Honey began her own research.

ERIC was created in 2012 by seven original member states with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It continues to be governed by member states, and uses state voter rolls, death records, motor vehicle records, and other information to cross-check state voter rolls for accuracy. It also identifies voters who may be eligible to vote but are unregistered — referred to as EBUs — and requires states to reach out to those potential voters about registering.

ERIC does not add or remove any voters itself. It only provides lists of voters to states, and states and counties then verify the accuracy of ERIC information before they remove voters from the rolls. Voters who register in response to the outreach must meet all voter registration requirements.

By June 2022, ERIC had grown to include 33 states and the District of Columbia. Prior to conservative attacks — including those fueled by Honey’s research — it drew bipartisan praise from officials for its ability to help clean voter rolls, including from some of those same officials who would take up Honey’s talking points.

In January 2022, an article from the right-wing outlet the Gateway Pundit accused ERIC of being “a left-wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll clean up.” Louisiana soon after announced it was suspending its membership. Officials told Votebeat at the time the decision was unrelated to the coverage but that “numerous” experts on “election stuff” had advised the state to leave ERIC, office spokesperson John Tobler said.

Louisiana would be the only state to part with the program for several months after the Gateway Pundit’s story was published. In the interim, Honey released her report, offering apparent backing to the charges laid out by the site.

While it reached many of the same conclusions as the Gateway Pundit, Honey’s report offered a more professionalized critique of ERIC with historical research, original first-hand documentation, and data analysis. It appears to have contributed to Virginia, Texas, Missouri, and Louisiana withdrawing from the compact, as well as North Carolina’s decision to halt its process of joining.

Flaws and omissions in Honey’s ERIC report

In June 2022, Mitchell — a conservative attorney who represented Trump in Georgia in 2020 — hosted a conference in Washington, D.C. There, Honey gave a presentation on ERIC to several secretaries of state or their representatives, according to information obtained by Documented, a D.C.-based investigative news outlet, and provided to Votebeat and Spotlight PA.

Mitchell did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

At the same time, Honey released her ERIC report on her website.

The report repeatedly asserts misleading claims. For example, she writes, “After 10 years of ERIC, there is no evidence that it has led to an improvement in accuracy or clean voter rolls.” She attempts to prove that by comparing the number of voter roll removals in ERIC states versus non-ERIC states. That comparison, however, relies entirely on a single metric — the number of removals in one category released in one year.

She claims that her research — using data released biannually by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) — shows that ERIC states removed proportionally fewer voters who had moved out of their voting districts than non-ERIC states had in the same time period.

Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT who studies elections and works with EAC data, says the data shouldn’t be used in this way. It is often unreliable because it contains gaps and basic mathematical errors, and sometimes doesn’t match what states independently report. Stewart is a member of ERIC’s Research Advisory Board, which advises the organization on how it can measure its performance.

He also disagreed with the premise of Honey’s analysis, since ERIC is not responsible for removing any voter from the voter rolls and ERIC member states are “at the mercy” of local jurisdictions like counties that actually act on the data ERIC provides.

But the data can provide a rough measure of ERIC’s performance. Using data available to Honey at the time of her report, Votebeat and Spotlight PA repeated her analysis and found that the conclusion of her report is misleading. She appears to have chosen the singular data point that supported her claim, out of a series of voter-removal metrics in the same data set. And, despite the availability of multiple years of such data, Honey used only one — 2020, an outlier year. Taken together, Honey left out 11 of 12 relevant data points in her report.

Votebeat’s and Spotlight PA’s analysis, which used all 12 data points available at the time her report was published, suggests exactly the opposite: ERIC states remove a higher percentage of voters from the rolls than non-ERIC states. Data from a more recent year — 2022 — also supports that conclusion. (Read more about our analysis below the story.)

  • February 13, 2024
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