The Lead

Wolf pulls election chief’s nomination amid legislative election review row

By: - September 13, 2021 3:40 pm

Former Pa. acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid testifies during an Aug. 24, 2021 Senate State Government Committee hearing (Screenshot).

(*This story was updated at 4:21 p.m. on Monday, 9/13/21 with comment from Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre)

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday he would withdraw his nominee to head the Department of State, which oversees the commonwealth’s elections, claiming confirmation hearings would give Republican lawmakers a venue to make bad faith arguments attacking the integrity of the 2020 election.

Since February 2021, Veronica Degraffenreid has been running the department as acting secretary of state. She previously administered North Carolina’s elections, before taking a job in Pennsylvania as an election modernization advisor in 2020.

The difference between acting and confirmed secretary is nothing but a title swap. But getting confirmed brings with it hearings and votes in the state Senate, which is tasked with approving cabinet picks.

In a statement, Wolf said that Senate Republicans, who have a majority in the upper chamber, “have no intention of having a rational conversation” about his picks for “leadership of the Department of State or our election systems.”

“It is clear that instead of providing advice and consent on my nominee for Secretary of the Commonwealth,” Wolf added, “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, instead of working together to address real issues facing Pennsylvanians.”

Pa. Senate committee launches election investigation, beginning with 2020 guidance

Wolf’s statement comes as the state Senate begins a legislative review of the 2020 presidential election, spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud and state Republicans’ own attacks on the Wolf administration and the state Supreme Court.

The upper chamber held its first hearing in the review last week, focusing on the Department of State’s guidance during the 2020 election on how to count and process mail-in ballots.

The Senate panel, led by state Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, had requested testimony from the Department of State, but they declined to testify. The committee is set to vote on subpoenaing the department at a meeting Wednesday.

Citing these efforts, Wolf argued it was clear that “Degraffenreid will not receive a fair hearing from this Senate on her merits.” 

In a statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the chamber had planned several hearings with Degraffenreid and the department to go over the state’s 2020 election guidance.

The Senate also sought to review the department’s failure to advertise a constitutional amendment letting childhood survivors of sexual abuse sue their perpetrators.

“If we turned a blind eye to these colossal failures, we would not be doing the job our constituents elected us to do,” Corman said.

He added that the Senate is under no obligation to honor’s Wolf’s request to pull Degraffenreid’s nomination.

Three of Wolf’s 23 cabinet level secretaries are acting as of Monday, including Degraffenreid. Numerous others have held the prefix to their title in recent months as cabinet officials have departed for new jobs before Wolf’s final term expires in 2023.

More than his cabinet, numerous other independent agencies, commissions, and boards have leaders appointed by Wolf and approved by the Senate, from the Public Utilities Commission to the Charter Appeals Board.

As Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly have sparred, these nominations have become a little-noted but consistent battle between the executive branch and the Legislature.

In April, Wolf pulled at least seven cabinet nominations, including Degraffenreid’s, during a fight over a regional carbon pricing initiative targeting power plants, according to the Center Square.

“The Wolf Administration will not let its cabinet officials be held hostage by the Senate Republicans’ insistence to halt progress on policy issues that are important to Pennsylvania’s citizens,” a Wolf spokesperson said at the time. “The individuals will continue to serve in an acting capacity. The title of ‘acting’ does not impact their ability to do the job in any way.”

At least four of those secretaries — including Secretary of Labor and Industry Jennifer Berrier and Secretary of Education Noe Ortega — were later confirmed.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.