Pa. GOP’s election inquiry: Courts, conspiracies, and more costs

Chester County election workers process mail and absentee ballots

File: Chester County election workers process mail and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in the United States at West Chester University, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in West Chester. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

A Republican inquiry into Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud has spawned several court cases as it expands into multiple courses of inquiry, grows in cost and shows signs it will drag well into 2022.

The Republican pursuit has received a broad embrace by GOP candidates on the campaign trail. On Friday, the state GOP scheduled an hour-long presentation on it at the party’s closed-press winter meeting in Lancaster.

The undertaking comes after Trump and his allies have pressured allies in battleground states he lost to seek out fraud to validate their conspiracy theories. Senators leading what they call an “investigation” in Pennsylvania have yet to report any findings.

As it drags on, it is looking more and more like the partisan and widely criticized “audit” Arizona’s Senate Republicans carried out of heavily populated Maricopa County in a battleground state won — like Pennsylvania — by Democrat Joe Biden.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Senators in charge of it say they are simply looking for ways to improve the state’s elections — not overturn the 2020 presidential election — and cite polls they say show voters lack confidence in elections.

Critics — including Republican senators — warn that its backers want nothing less than to overturn 2020′s election. Democrats have broadly opposed it and characterized it as an effort to discredit Biden’s win, damage confidence in elections and take away voting rights.

Here is a look at where everything stands:

Voting machines

The state Supreme Court has, for now, held up the downloading of digital data from voting machines and election equipment in a heavily Republican county, Fulton County.

The Republican senator in charge, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, is targeting Fulton County because it used equipment made by Dominion Voting Systems in 2020’s election.

Denver-based Dominion was the subject of some of the most feverish right-wing conspiracy theories about stealing the election from Trump. It and has since filed a number of defamation lawsuits against Trump allies and right-wing broadcasters.

In brief interview last month, Dush said he wants access to Dominion’s equipment “because there have been reports that there are problems with it, and we’re going to take a look at it.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The state had a responsibility to ensure the equipment was “properly investigated,” but did not, Dush said.

Dush would not say exactly what problems he had in mind. But he also suggested the inquiry would not necessarily stop at Fulton County.

“We’re going to see if there is any evidence that causes further investigation and then we’ll go from there,” Dush said.

Fulton County, which is cooperating with Dush, is Trump country, delivering more than 85% of its vote in 2020’s election to the former president.

But Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration asked the court to get involved because it had tried fruitlessly to ensure that any access to the equipment is conducted under a specific set of rules to prevent the data and equipment from being damaged or altered.

Fulton County said the state’s demands were unnecessary, and a lower court would not force it to agree.

Dominion’s equipment was also used in Maricopa County, where it was inspected twice by two different federally accredited voting system laboratories. It passed both times, according to reports of the inspections posted by Maricopa County.

Dush has advocated for overturning Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania and for bringing an Arizona-style election “investigation” to Pennsylvania.

The subpoena

The statewide Commonwealth Court last month rejected Democrats’ efforts to block a subpoena issued by a Republican-controlled Senate committee for information from state election officials.

But the court also declined to greenlight the release of some information it sought, citing an argument by Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro that it is protected by privacy laws.

That protected information, according to Shapiro’s office, includes voters’ partial Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers and details about election systems that are barred from public disclosure by federal law governing critical infrastructure.

Lawyers for Shapiro’s office and Senate Democrats want the court to order hearings so they can question Dush about why he thinks it is necessary to have the information.

But instead, the court has ordered briefs due Feb. 15 on questions about the court’s legal jurisdiction over a legislative subpoena.

When he voted for the subpoena, Dush said he wants the information because of questions “regarding the validity of people who have … voted, whether or not they exist.”

He did not give examples.

Election workers scan ballots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Election workers scan ballots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Officials anticipate that the task of scanning mail and absentee ballots will be completed Thursday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Election fraud

An Associated Press investigation into potential cases of voter fraud in Pennsylvania and the five other battleground states where Trump disputed his loss to Biden in 2020 found a minuscule number of cases.

Election officials in 11 of the state’s 67 counties identified a total of 26 possible cases of voter fraud, representing 0.03% of Biden’s margin of victory. He defeated Trump in Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes, according to the state’s certified results.

The cost

It’s going up.

In Arizona, millions of dollars were supplied by Trump supporters to underwrite the effort. In Pennsylvania, Senate Republicans concluded it would be illegal to accept private donations for the task and they would use taxpayer dollars.

The original contract between Senate Republicans and Envoy Sage is $270,000, but Dush’s office acknowledged the Fulton County undertaking was not covered under the original contract and requires an addendum.

In addition, lawyers are now representing both Republican and Democratic senators in two different court cases, one on the subpoena and one over Fulton County’s voting machines.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal