Republicans in Pennsylvania's state Senate held their first hearing Thursday in what they call a “forensic investigation” into last year's presidential election, an underwhelming affair that Democrats nevertheless say is an extension of a national campaign to attack voting rights following former President Donald Trump's loss.
Republicans maintain that the investigation is not about Trump or overturning the election, but rather about looking into problems with the last two elections — in May and November — and trying to fix those problems.
It has been ardently pressed by Republican senators vowing to bring an Arizona-style election “audit” to Pennsylvania, but has sown discord in the Senate Republican caucus and brought sharp criticism from Democrats.
They say it is a perversion of the Senate’s rules and an effort to undermine voting rights and the state's mail-in voting law, in service to Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen from him.
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Republicans seem to be aiming to use the committee as a “super committee to propagate their rhetoric and amplify the rhetoric of distortion and chase every rabbit hole of conspiracy theory that has been discredited to date,” said Sen. Anthony Williams, the committee's Democratic chair from Philadelphia.
Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks, called it “part of a nationwide effort that's well-organized and well-funded to call in to question the outcome of last year's election so that it can then be the vehicle for denying people the freedom to vote by changing our election laws.”
It's not clear what the investigation will look like, but the top Republican senator, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, has vowed to issue subpoenas to get information or voting machines and ballots, as happened in the widely discredited election audit mounted by Arizona's Senate Republicans.
The subject of the hearing was to discuss pre-election guidance to counties by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration on how to handle aspects of the state's fledgling mail-in voting law.
The subject is previously plowed ground, having been explored in a state House committee hearing in January.
The day’s witness list was short: a Republican county commissioner from sparsely populated Fulton County.
The commissioner drew particularly sharp questioning from Democrats because Fulton County — in cooperation with Trump allies — allowed a software firm to inspect its voting machines as part of an “audit” after the 2020 election.
The commissioner, Stuart Ulsh, said that trying to follow updates to the state's guidance had been “confusing” and “overwhelming" for his small staff.
In written testimony it submitted, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania primarily blamed changes in state guidance to counties on a crush of lawsuits over provisions in the mail-in voting law.
Officials from many of Pennsylvania's most heavily populated counties and Philadelphia, the state's biggest city, roundly said they had not been invited to testify.
Officials from Wolf’s Department of State, which oversees elections in Pennsylvania, declined to testify. The testimony would relate to a lawsuit filed against the agency by state lawmakers seeking to throw out the mail-in voting law, a spokesperson said.
The committee's chair, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, read aloud the questions he wanted to ask agency officials, but did not say whether he would seek to issue subpoenas.
In a letter to Dush, Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said agency officials have testified repeatedly on election matters before House and Senate committees this year. That includes testifying before the Senate’s Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform, which produced a report on the election, as did a House committee.
In any case, the hearing hardly dwelled on pre-election guidance.
Rather, Democrats questioned Ulsh repeatedly about who paid for the audit. Ulsh said he didn't know, only that taxpayers did not pay for it. Democrats on the panel asked him to find out and provide the answer.
Later, they questioned how he couldn't be aware of a county document stating that the software company — which for a time worked on the Arizona audit — was contracted to a group called Defending the Republic.
The group is run by Sidney Powell, a Trump-allied lawyer who filed a number of baseless lawsuits challenging election results and helped fund the Arizona election audit.
Democrats also questioned Ulsh's motivation to hold the audit. Ulsh said he wanted to know “if everything was done properly."
Democrats contended that Ulsh's motivation was to overthrow the election result.