Capital-Star Q+A: Rep. Seth Grove on election hearings, voter fraud, and the future of reform in Pa.

Rep. Seth Grove questions Wolf administration officials during a Feb. 13, 2019 budget hearing in the Capitol. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The Pennsylvania House finished a set of 10 hearings diving into the nitty gritty of the commonwealth’s election law last week.

The hearings were overseen by Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, the chairman of the House State Government Committee. 

First elected in 2008, Grove has built a reputation as a fiscal hawk, even winning an award from the American Legislative Exchange Council — a national conservative business lobbying group — as legislator of the year in 2018.

He’s served as chair of the State Government Committee since last November, first jumping on as an interim chief in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election.

In that role, he appeared at a conspiratorial press conference about Dominion Voting Machines, but did not join some of his conservative colleagues in calls for a legislative audit of the election, or a late December letter that falsely claimed that “the numbers don’t add up” in the state’s vote tally.

“Our caucus was a mess,” Grove told reporters of the internal dissension over how to respond to former President Donald Trump’s push to stay in office despite losing the election.

But Grove did author and collect signatures for a separate December letter asking Congress to reject Pennsylvania’s election results, citing administrative actions and legal rulings that “undermined the lawful certification of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the Electoral College.” A total of 64 House and Senate Republicans signed on.

Now, four months on from the new year — and the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump — Grove will have a key role in the negotiations for badly needed electoral reforms.

He and the committee released a one page report running down their findings, citing a need to upgrade the state’s election registry, upgrade county voting technology, and standardize processes across all 67 counties. 

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Democrats were quick to point out that the list did not cite time before election for county officials to count mail-in ballots, adjusting ballot application timelines, or funding for local officials to pursue upgrades.

“After more than 10 hearings, I think that Republicans have made it painfully clear that they aren’t interested in stopping the steal, they are more interested in suppressing the vote,” said state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie.

The Capital-Star sat down with Grove on Tuesday to discuss the hearings, his past actions, and what he expects for the future.

Capital-Star: You always bring up Florida[‘s election laws]. And not just yourself. I’ve heard that from a couple of Republicans. Florida has Voter ID. Florida has no-excuse absentee ballots. Florida has early voting. Do you think those three things should all be part of Pennsylvania’s election code when you are putting together that eventual reform bill?

Seth Grove: We took a holistic approach to our entire election law. I think there’s room for Pennsylvania to grow in numerous ways. We have a bad law. We have a bad law for disabled people. We have a bad law for accessibility. We have a bad law for integrity. 

We keep saying — and it’s probably a coined phrase by now — that voting should be easy and cheating should be hard.

You have to have discussions around accessibility. You have to have discussions around integrity. With any accessibility expansion, how do you protect the vote? 

We’ve had two presidential election cycles where people didn’t have confidence for different reasons. How do we rebuild that trust and that confidence moving forward? 

You know, I am going to continue to be tight-lipped on what it is because we want to work with the [Wolf] administration. We want to get to a point where we have election law signed into law. 

We didn’t go through 10 hearings and put this much time into oversight in our elections, just to throw something on [Gov. Tom Wolf’s] his desk and have [it] vetoed. So we’re gonna give our best faith effort to do as much redesign of our election law as possible in a bipartisan way.

C-S: But people can read the tea leaves. You’ve put your name on a bill that would have eliminated absentee ballots. You’re a co-sponsor of that legislation. You’re a co-sponsor of voter ID proposals. I understand not putting your policy guidelines down but you’ve put your name on certain bills that advocate certain policies. Do you still stand by those co-sponsorships?

SG: It’s a negotiation. We’ll see what pops up. You know, people introduce stuff all the time. There’s a lot of Democrat bills. I think there’s actually more Democrat bills on elections sitting in the committee than there are Republican [bills]. We’ll see what transpires. It’s a fluid conversation. 

Through the hearings, we’ve learned a lot. I think we armed ourselves with a lot of election knowledge. And hopefully the general public learned a lot about the election process too. Because that was as part of it, too. We had to educate the public on how this stuff works. You have to have a baseline of facts to start conversations. And I think we have a baseline of facts about our elections. 

I think we have some of the best standards on machine security. You know, that hearing was phenomenal. I think if people watched it, they read the logic and assessments, they have an opportunity to call their elections officials and go to a pre-test of those machines coming up in the primary. I’ve told my colleagues to go visit and have those discussions, go stream live those machine testing. I have great confidence in the machines. They’re not connected to the internet. It was a great hearing. I think it informed a lot of people, just the level of security we have.

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At the same time, we’ve heard from cybersecurity professionals. You know, there’s more work to be done. And that goes back to not settling. We passed major reforms in 2019, and 2020. We should go back and revisit and have discussions on them. We should see how they worked. We should try to if there’s issues to improve them. But that’s with any law. And I will stand here to say and say, I think the General Assembly has not done a good job of those follow ups in the past. 

Had we done our due diligence over the past few decades, maybe we wouldn’t be in this spot today. But I’m now chairman, it’s my responsibility, because I’m going to make sure we do the work and make sure we have those proper discussions about numerous laws.

C-S: You talked about good faith bargaining. So one thing I have to ask you is — You signed on to, and you organized, the letter to Congress that objected to Pennsylvania’s election results in the 2020 election. You’ve been part of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s election integrity committee. And you are one of many lawmakers who met privately with Kris Kobach, who’s just talking a lot about baseless voter fraud conspiracies. There are a lot of people who are going to be looking at you and saying, ‘you’re not going to be negotiating in good faith, and you are not someone who’s actually trying to make the election code better. You’re gonna be focusing more on the harder to cheat than the easier to vote.’ What would you say to people who are very doubtful of your ability to participate in this conversation?

SG: We’ll see.

C-S: That’s it?

SG: That’s it. We’ll see. Listen, that is all speculation and innuendo. 

C-S: No, no, no-

SG: Look, look at my wall. Look at my wall. You see those bills?

[Grove points to 11 framed pieces of his own legislation that were signed into law, hanging in his office]

C-S: Yeah

SG: Tell me I can’t work in good faith to deliver a product.

C-S: I would just push back. You told me that you went to that meeting with Kris Kobach. I understand what you said about that — 

[Editor’s note: Grove told the Capital-Star two weeks ago that he “wasn’t really paying attention” to the meeting]

SG: I was invited to dinner.

C-S: You also organized the letter that went to Congress that said ‘we object to the results.’

SG: Because we had serious issues about how the Department of State put out their guidance and the Supreme Court’s rulings. We thought it was out of bounds and we want to make sure we got it on the record.

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C-S: Was there election fraud in 2020?

SG: Yes, there was. They have confirmed cases of election fraud.

C-S: Who committed that fraud in Pennsylvania?

SG: Right, Republicans. But it’s still election fraud. It doesn’t matter who [commits] it. We don’t want that fraud to occur. And to say there wasn’t any is a lie. 

Now, I will say there’s not like this mass amount of fraud, that’s going to shift hundreds of thousands of votes. But there was election fraud. We have had repeated, repeated election fraud in this commonwealth for decades.

C-S: This is not the message that, particularly Republican politicians, were giving to their constituents-

SG: Some. Not all. 

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C-S: Some.

SG: You can’t give every single Republican that blanket, saying ‘every Republican out there was saying fraud.’ Never once have I ever said there’s 200,000 more ballots than registered voters in this Commonwealth. I’ve never said there are all these deceased voters out there. I’ve always seeked the truth.

C-S: But members, such as yourself, did not publicly call out these lies. In a single tweet, I believe you did. And these lies were allowed to propagate. And that created the uncertainty in the 2020 election that you are now attempting to solve.

SG: I can’t help people believe everything on the internet. There are a lot of bad accusations out there. We did our due diligence to try to address them when members had questions. 

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You know, it is what it is. People are going to believe what they believe. The other reason for doing the hearings, you know, we looked at the actual election law, the actual administration [of the] election. And you can hear by the stakeholders testimony or public statements, there was a lot of appreciation for how we did it. And we did it different than every other state. We took our time, we did the deep dive. And again, I believe in fact-based oversight. I want the facts, I want a real set of facts that we can all agree on and move forward. And I think that’s what we developed in that hearing.

C-S: I know you said you don’t want to get into the policy. But there are two small policy things that I want to highlight. Third-party grants [from private foundations] to election offices, do you think those should be banned?

SG: There is great ire within members about those grants. How they were distributed, a reliance on private dollars … Was there a disclosure, did the Department of State review those, did the attorney general’s office to review those? How did this all transpire? How do they work? Where do they go to?

So you know, a couple of my colleagues proposed instead of having counties do it, let’s allow the Department of State to collect the money and distribute it so everybody can reap the benefits of private dollars. 

I don’t think we’re gonna see private dollars in elections, this election cycle, because unfortunate, nobody cares about municipal elections, which is a real shame. They’re so important, like, judges, your school board. How many years have we talked about property taxes in this place? And school board directors just sit there and nobody wants to run? It’s a problem.

So, you know, it’s a discussion. We’ll see. At the end of the day, I don’t know what’s in or out, we need to have those conversations.

C-S: One other quick policy question is the regulation of third party mail-in ballot applications. Do you think there needs to be some sort of restriction on how those are sent, who can send them?

SG: One of the first hearings, I remember [Department of State Deputy Secretary for Elections and Commissions] Jonathan Marks and even [Democratic State Government Committee] Chairwoman [Margo] Davidson bring that up. 

It’s all on the table. Like, for me, nothing’s off the table. Let’s have this honest, open discussion about elections in Pennsylvania. At the end of the day, the process shouldn’t determine winners and losers. And I think that’s what people feel our process has led in 2016 and then 2020, to outcomes being derived that the voters didn’t approve.

I think everyone agrees: Too much accessibility without any integrity, security, just opens the door. You will have fraud, right? At the reverse side, you can design the most secure system. No one’s voting. Right?

So you have to have that system that keeps those who are not eligible to vote out, keep those who want to manipulate the system to commit fraud out of the system, and give as much access as we possibly can to those legitimate voters who just want to go and do their civic duty.

C-S: You talked about that, a sliding scale of security to access. But do you think the end goal of a good election policy is that turnout is inching towards 80, 90 — I’m not gonna say 100 percent — but like, every single person who possibly wants to vote is voting?

SG: The goal is to try to get every person that’s eligible to vote [to have] that opportunity, regardless of where they live, any kind of disabilities they have, whatever.

Now, it is a participation sport, you’ve got to want to participate. And you have to set up the system to make sure that that occurs in a fair, balanced way. But you don’t want to put so many barriers up even that people may be dissuaded and just say ‘it’s not worth the hassle,’ and stuff like that.

I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘I don’t vote because of the paperwork or the hassle.’ Most people say, ‘I don’t vote because it doesn’t make a difference.’ That’s the number one thing I hear throughout the electorate: ‘Why bother? My vote doesn’t matter.’

That predated 2020. And that predated 2016. And, you know, there are close elections. I mean, ask [Adams County GOP state Rep.] Torren Ecker. That guy got elected in the [2018] primary by one vote. You don’t know what’s going to turn into a close election and how that one vote makes a difference.

You have even non close elections. you had 5,000 people in a House district that decided not to vote. If those 5,000 people ended up voting, you could have a different representative.

C-S: You said your goal is to negotiate with [Gov. Tom] Wolf, because you actually want something that doesn’t just get vetoed. Have you had any talks with Wolf?

SG: Not yet.

C-S: Do you have any meetings scheduled with [Gov.] Tom Wolf, or his staff?

SG: Not yet. Working on it.

They’ve always been amenable, I mean, even bills I’ve done, going back and forth, negotiating. They’ve always been willing to have a conversation, which is good. That’s where you need to be. So we’ve done in the past, we can do it moving forward. 

I look forward to concluding it, because at some point, we’re going to move on to redistricting.

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