Questions remain about Pa. GOP’s election ‘investigation’

Senate Republicans last week hired Envoy Sage onto a $270,000 contract to help carry out the undertaking, fueled by pressure from former President Trump and his allies.

Chester Country election workers check ballots

Chester Country election workers check ballots one last time before sending them to be scanned and counted in the West Chester University gym on Nov. 3, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Many questions remain unanswered Tuesday as to what Republicans in Pennsylvania’s Senate can accomplish from what they call a “forensic investigation” into last year’s presidential election now that they have hired a contractor that has not pointed to any experience in elections.

Senate Republicans last week hired the Iowa-based Envoy Sage onto a $270,000 contract to help carry out the undertaking, fueled by pressure from former President Donald Trump and his allies in a search for fraud across battleground states to back up their baseless allegations that the election was stolen.

In a brief conference call with reporters Tuesday, Steve Lahr, Envoy Sage’s president, said the company could hire people or subcontractors with expertise, if necessary.

Pressed for details about his aims, Lahr said only that his team will examine last year’s presidential election and last May’s primary election, analyze submissions to the Senate GOP’s online appeal for evidence of “election improprieties” and review “previous election audit-related materials.”

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Ultimately, the firm aims to “provide recommendations based on analysis of facts for future elections and voting integrity legislation,” Lahr said.

Lahr described his experience as having conducted investigations and audits, developed “crucial information and intelligence” from “extensive, complicated and sensitive investigation research and multi-discipline analysis,” both in the military and as a Defense Department contractor.

Asked for details, he said that most of it is confidential and classified at the highest levels of the federal government and the Department of Defense, and that he cannot discuss those contracts.

Lahr’s previous firm, Silverback 7, had an extensive list of federal contracts.

Republican-controlled committees in both the House and Senate already held hearings on last year’s election throughout last spring and produced reports, as well as legislation that Democrats opposed. One bill was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

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Gregory Miller, chief operating officer of the California-based OSET Institute, which is devoted to research on election infrastructure and administration, said there is no established election “investigation” concept for what Republicans are carrying out in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona.

But, Miller said, there are election administrators who have expertise in running elections, information technology firms that can analyze the security of computers and networks and the voting-system manufacturers that have a deep understanding of their hardware and components.

Mark Lindeman, a political scientist who has written on and consulted on post-election audits, said many people have experience in working closely with various kinds of election records and equipment, such as paper ballots, vote totals and registration and voting records.

“Experience matters because novices can misinterpret the routine quirks of elections as anomalies or evidence of fraud,” said Lindeman, who works for Verified Voting, which advocates for election integrity and the responsible use of election technology.

For instance, Lindeman said, Republicans’ widely discredited election “audit” carried out in Arizona’s Maricopa County was riddled with unfounded allegations based on basic misunderstandings.

“Inexperienced, partisan consultants tend to leap to invidious conclusions,” Lindeman said. “They shouldn’t lead serious investigations.”

Lahr said he sees himself bipartisan and fair, and has no pre-conceived notions about the task before him.

However, the man who hired Lahr’s firm, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, signed a letter last year urging Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes being cast for Democrat Joe Biden, despite a certified victory of more than 80,000 votes.

In a Facebook post last Jan. 1, Dush proclaimed that “there was no election. There was a scam.”

Even if Republican senators avoid repeating Trump’s baseless election claims about fraud, they have perpetuated the idea that Democrats cheated by distorting Pennsylvania’s election laws and the actions of courts and election officials leading up to last year’s election.

Critics inside the Senate Republican caucus have suggested that people who want the “forensic investigation” are only interested in seeing Trump reinstated.

Election administrators say an audit is duplicative, given the required audits already carried out by counties and the state.

Meanwhile, Trump’s false claims of a stolen election have been debunked by the courts, his own Justice Department and numerous recounts, and no prosecutor, judge or election official in Pennsylvania has raised a concern about widespread fraud.

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