HARRISBURG, PA — The 2020 General Election is widely considered to be “the most secure in American history,” and yet nearly a year later, lawmakers throughout the …
HARRISBURG, PA — The 2020 General Election is widely considered to be “the most secure in American history,” and yet nearly a year later, lawmakers throughout the country—especially in swing states—are continuing to question its results.
In past weeks, Republican leaders in both chambers of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly have taken controversial steps toward that end. State senators have subpoenaed the Department of State for personal information on every voter in the commonwealth. Meanwhile, the House State Government Committee has voted along party lines to push a number of proposed election reforms, including stricter voter ID rules.
As another Election Day approaches, these moves have invited sharp criticism and legal challenges from Democratic legislators, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and various voting rights groups throughout the state.
The presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was monumental for several reasons. For many Pennsylvanians, it was their first time casting a vote by mail, thanks to the state updating its election code the previous year. In the run-up to the election, the Trump Administration sowed unfounded doubt nationwide about the legitimacy of mail-in voting, alleging that the process would be rife with voter fraud. Meanwhile, members of Pennsylvania’s GOP sparred with the governor over legal issues like ballot dropboxes and voter deadlines, infusing chaos for county-level election officials who struggled with changing rules up through the morning of November 3.
As mail-in ballots were tallied up and Pennsylvania—a key swing state—was called for Biden, Republican leaders were quick to characterize the election as illegitimate, demanding an immediate audit of the process. Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler blamed the Wolf administration and the courts for a “litany of inconsistencies” while Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff alleged “partisan meddling by Democrats before, during and after the conclusion.”
Members of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released a joint statement on November 12, expressing confidence in the election results.
“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” the statement read. “While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections, we can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too.”
But the words of encouragement did little to assuage Pennsylvania lawmakers’ fears of fraud, who directed the House Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct a “risk-limiting audit of ballots canvassed in the 2020 General Election.” In a rare move, the committee refused to complete this task, calling it unnecessary since the State Department conducts its own audit after each election anyway. The year came to a close with no real investigation ever materializing, but Republican leaders promised that their efforts would carry into the next legislative session.
This past September, the state’s Republican-controlled Senate voted to subpoena a trove of data and information from the PA Department of State, including all communication between election officials at the state and county level. Most controversially, the subpoena also requests the name, address, driver’s license numbers, and last four digits of the Social Security numbers of every registered voter in Pennsylvania as of the 2020 General Election.
The October 1 deadline for the department to turn over this information has passed, but lawmakers have yet to receive what they’ve requested. Legal challenges have put the investigation on hold.
Senate Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed lawsuits to block the subpoenas, saying that they put citizens’ privacy at risk.
“Giving this data away would compromise the privacy of every Pennsylvania voter—that violates Pennsylvanians’ constitutional rights. By trying to pry into everyone’s driver’s license numbers and Social Security numbers they have gone too far,” Shapiro said in a statement on September 23. “Today we say enough is enough. What they are doing is against the law and we intend to win.”
Several civil and voting rights groups have filed a petition to intervene in the lawsuit on the side of Shapiro, including the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Pennsylvania.
“It is possible to stoke fear and stoke a sense of unfairness, and so I think that people who are not acting in good faith are doing that, they are trying to push a divide,” said Susan Gobreski, board member and government policy chair for the LWV of Pennsylvania. “We [at LWV of PA] want to be confident in our election results too, so we keep an eye on what’s happening, and we looked at the processes, and the procedures, and the safeguards, and the evidence… we believe that we have the most secure election in history.”
Republican leaders defend the subpoena, claiming that they are requesting the same private information that the Wolf administration had already given to third parties ahead of last year’s election. PA Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward alleged that “the Department of State gave outside third party groups access” to Pennsylvania’s voter database, known as the SURE system.
According to sworn testimony from Jonathan Marks, a top-ranking election official, third parties were able to provide data which is then uploaded to the SURE system, but third parties have never had access to the database itself. It’s similar to how a postal worker has access to deliver a package to your front doorstep, but doesn’t have access to walk inside the door and remove belongings from your home. At press time, no evidence to the contrary has been brought to light.
Republicans have attempted to push through various pieces of election-related legislation in recent years, but frequently gotten shut down by the Democratic governor’s veto power. Representatives in the House are hopeful that an alternate route will circumnavigate the governor altogether.
Last September, the House State Government Committee approved—with all 15 Republicans in favor and all 10 Democrats opposed—proposals that would drastically change the commonwealth’s election processes via constitutional amendments.
Most notably, these amendments would enact additional voter ID and signature verification requirements, tighten up the voter registration process, and establish the state’s top-ranking election official as an elected position, not one chosen by the governor.
Because Wolf cannot veto a constitutional amendment the way he can a regular bill that comes across his desk, the strategy has obvious appeal to legislators of the opposite party.
It’s not unprecedented either. In the most recent primary election, the voters of Pennsylvania ushered in several new constitutional amendments, a couple of which limited the governor’s ability to declare states of emergency—a frequent point of contention between Wolf and Republicans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers had tried and failed to limit the governor’s emergency powers first through legislation, then through the court system, until finally finding success through constitutional amendment.
Gobreski said that this approach to legislating election rules makes her uneasy.
“The Constitution is about basic rights, not administrative responsibilities, and we think that the public wants checks and balances in government,” she said. “A constitutional amendment creating an administrative requirement just seems to fly in the face of what a constitution is about.”
See next week’s River Reporter to learn more about proposed pieces of election legislation currently being considered in Harrisburg.
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