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Pa. Republicans vote to subpoena voter records and personal information in 2020 election probe

Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Political News

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania Republicans voted Wednesday to subpoena Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration for detailed records of every registered voter in the state, including personal information like the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

It’s the most concrete step the GOP-led legislature has taken to investigate the 2020 election since the top Senate Republican committed last month to undertaking a review that former President Donald Trump has long demanded as part of his campaign to discredit the results.

Democrats said they will challenge the subpoena in court, blasting the inquiry as a “fishing expedition” and raising concerns about sharing millions of voters’ personal information with an outside vendor that hasn’t yet been selected.

Republicans on the state Senate panel that wrote the subpoena said the documents they’re requesting would help show whether any fraud was committed in Pennsylvania, a state President Joe Biden won by more than 80,000 votes.

“There have been questions regarding the validity of people ... who have voted, whether or not they exist,” Sen. Cris Dush, a Jefferson Republican and the committee’s chairman, said during a contentious 75-minute hearing. “We’re not responding to proven allegations. We are investigating the allegations to determine whether or not they are factual.”

If the investigation uncovers problems with the voter registration system, Dush said, the legislature has a responsibility to pass a bill to “prevent that from happening in future elections.”

State Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks, responded: “There have been allegations about last year’s elections. I understand that. They’ve been proven to be without merit. Why do we now need this information?”

There’s no evidence to support Trump’s baseless claims of election rigging, which were roundly rejected by courts and which fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. County and state audits found no issue with the results in Pennsylvania.

Democrats said only the executive branch — not the Senate — has the authority to conduct the kind of investigation Republicans are undertaking.

State Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia, the top Democrat on the committee, called the subpoena a “pure, unadulterated power grab” meant “to suppress voters’ rights.”

Dush said he’s in the process of interviewing contractors and will consult with Senate GOP lawyers to determine which materials will be shared with third parties. He said he’s also considering hiring outside counsel. The costs will be paid by taxpayers, out of the Senate’s budget, Dush said.

The subpoena — to be issued to the Department of State, which oversees elections — seeks lists of all registered voters and nonpublic information such as driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers, as well as publicly available records like dates of birth and addresses.

It also requests information about whether voters cast ballots in person or by mail both last fall and in the May 2021 primary election; all changes to voter records between May 2020 and May 2021; communications between state and county elections officials during that same time period; guidance and directives regarding the administration of elections; and training materials for election workers.

The GOP-led Senate Intergovernmental Affairs and Operations Committee voted along party lines, 7-4, to issue the subpoena. It directs the department to produce the records by Oct. 1.

The vote came at the conclusion of a contentious hearing in which Democrats highlighted some Pennsylvania Republicans’ presence in Washington on Jan. 6, prompting Dush to halt the proceedings multiple times. Republicans brought up the yearslong Justice Department investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia.

 

Democrats questioned how lawmakers would ensure the contractor properly handles sensitive information.

“We will gather sensitive information, we will review sensitive information, and then we will secure that information,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “That is my pledge, that is something that is paramount.”

The vote came as Republican-led legislatures in other swing states Biden won are continuing to question the results 10 months after the election. Officials in Arizona are awaiting the findings of a monthslong partisan review in the state’s largest county led by a contractor called Cyber Ninjas, whose CEO has amplified Trump’s false fraud claims.

Lawmakers in Wisconsin have launched multiple probes, and Georgia Republicans have been pushing for an Arizona-style review.

Dush, the Republican tapped by Corman to lead the Pennsylvania inquiry, traveled to Arizona in June to get a firsthand look at the review there.

The continued Republican questioning of the 2020 election has also escalated ongoing conflict with Wolf, a Democrat. On Monday, Wolf withdrew his nomination of Veronica Degraffenreid as secretary of state after Republicans sought “a record number of hearings” as part of her confirmation process. Degraffenreid will remain acting secretary, the state’s top elections official.

“It is clear that instead of providing advice and consent on my nominee for Secretary of the Commonwealth, they instead plan on using her confirmation as an opportunity to descend further into conspiracy theories and work to please the former President by spreading lies about last year’s election,” Wolf said in a statement.

In response, Corman said in a statement Monday that the Department of State had “administered recent elections in a way that is deeply partisan.”

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(Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this report.)

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WHY WE'RE NOT CALLING IT AN AUDIT

The Inquirer is not currently referring to attempts by Pennsylvania Republicans to investigate the 2020 presidential election as an audit because there's no indication it would follow the best practices or the common understanding of an audit among nonpartisan experts. When asked by The Inquirer, lawmakers leading the effort have not explained how it would actually be run, including whether best practices would be followed; who would be involved, including what role partisan politicians would play; how the review would be documented; how election equipment and ballots would be secured; and what the scope of any review would be. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes. State and county audits affirmed the outcome, and there is no evidence of any significant fraud.

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