Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Senate Republicans undertaking a controversial review of last year’s presidential election on Wednesday authorized collecting personal information on every registered voter in the state, despite objections by Democrats who decried it as invasive and unwarranted.
The 7-to-4 vote by the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee allows the panel to subpoena the Department of State, which oversees elections statewide, for the name, address, driver’s license, and partial social security numbers of every voter registered as of last November.
The sweeping subpoena also requests all email and other written communications between the Department of State and elections officials in every Pennsylvania county; all state election directives and guidance to counties; and training materials for poll workers, election judges, and others.
That information, Senate officials said, would then be turned over to a yet-to-be-identified private company, which would carry out the review. The committee’s chair, Republican Sen. Cris Dush of Jefferson County, refused to provide any information about which companies are being vetted for the job.
The demand for documents is the latest step in an ongoing effort by Senate Republicans to investigate the 2020 election, despite the fact that it has already been audited twice in most counties. Republicans have pointed to the state’s changing election guidance to counties last year, which they say has undermined public confidence in the election.
On Wednesday, the Senate’s top Republican, Jake Corman of Centre County, said the investigation will ultimately be judged by its results.
“Hopefully, it’ll give us action items to better our laws moving forward to the next election, or we can dispel a lot of concerns about the last one,” Corman said. “One of those two things will happen, and I think both of those are good.”
Democrats on Wednesday said they would swiftly sue to both block the subpoena and the GOP’s overall review of last year’s election, which included victories of both Republicans and Democrats in down-ballot races. GOP leaders have vowed to fight such efforts all the way to the state’s highest court — a move that will add to what is already expected to be a high price tag for the review.
Dush did reveal Wednesday that the private company the Senate hires will be paid with taxpayer dollars. Top Senate officials have said they do not have a specific budget for their inquiry, nor have they set a ceiling on how much they are willing to spend on it.
They have also struggled to describe its scope, and have vacillated on why they believe it is necessary. As recently as June, Corman said he did not see a need to “relitigate” the 2020 election.
But in an editorial two months later, Corman wrote of the necessity for a “forensic audit” that would restore faith in the same elections Pennsylvania Republicans repeatedly challenged in court last year, to no avail.
Even so, Republicans at Wednesday’s hearing avoided calling their investigation an “audit,” and voiced several times their intention is to look for voter fraud, not to overturn the 2020 election. Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, are not participating in the investigation and have said they’re not interested in auditing any past elections.
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) on Wednesday said his caucus is focused on passing election reform, including bipartisan recommendations from county elections officials.
Democrats, including those in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, have blasted the GOP’s election inquiry as a partisan and baseless attack on the legitimate outcome of the 2020 election. In a statement minutes after the vote, Wolf called the investigation a capitulation to former President Donald Trump’s “conspiracy theories about the 2020 election,” and a thinly-veiled effort to undermine the state’s election system.
“Senate Republicans would rather cater to the fringe elements of their party who still are perpetuating the Big Lie rather than focus on issues that affect Pennsylvanians’ lives,” Wolf said. “Election security is not a game and should not be treated with such carelessness.”
The committee’s Democratic senators were also harshly critical of the vote. Under the bright lights of the hearing room, Democrats peppered Dush with questions, many of them centering around the panel’s authority to issue the subpoena and the GOP’s efforts to find and vet a private company. Dush largely sidestepped or refused to answer, at times suspending the hearing to argue in whispers off-mic.
“You are incapable right now today to tell the members of this committee and the public who will have access to that information … and whether that information will be made public,” said Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks).
Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) said turning over private voter information to an outside company “should be scary to all of us.”
“This should be seen as a betrayal of those who are here to represent you,” said Williams.
The Republican subpoena not only seeks the personal information of voters registered as of November of last year, but also requests lists of voters who participated in the 2020 elections and the May 2021 primary.
Republicans said Wednesday morning they would use the information to verify the identity of voters, but to what specific end was unclear.
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