Commentary

The Pa. Senate’s sham election review threatens democracy | Opinion

The bottom line is that Sen. Doug Mastriano’s escapade will cost Pa. counties millions of dollars to comply and then to clean up the mess

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin (R) and former state Rep. Rick Saccone at the U.S. Capitol on 1/6/21 (Facebook photo)

By Marian K. Schneider

What do the Big Lie about the 2020 election, the Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt, and the recent demands that York, Tioga and Philadelphia counties turn over their entire election set up to the Pennsylvania Senate have in common?  They are all attempts to undermine our democracy actively promoted by state Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin County).

Last year, Pennsylvania’s 67 counties delivered a free and fair election – with the biggest turnout in the state’s history – while facing extraordinary obstacles in the midst of a public health emergency.

After the election, every county completed its legally required statistical recount of a sample of ballots. 63 counties participated in a pilot program for a “risk-limiting audit” with the Pennsylvania Department of State, the gold standard for checking machine counts. These processes demonstrated that Pennsylvania’s paper ballots were counted accurately in 2020. Unsurprisingly, both Democrats and Republicans up and down the ballot won their races.

Harrisburg politicians should be praising our county election officials for their hard work in overseeing a successful election during a pandemic and under the most intense political pressure in living memory.

Instead, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, through an obscure Pennsylvania Senate committee he chairs, has demanded that Philadelphia, York, and Tioga counties turn over their entire election infrastructure, from all of the voting machines that count ballots, to the software and hardware that is used to run the election.

Mastriano has also asked the three counties for the original 2020 ballots, including mail-in and absentee ballots and the envelopes that they came in, ignoring state and federal law requiring that those items be secured and preserved to prevent alteration or destruction.

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Moreover, Mastriano has threatened to compel these counties, using the legislative subpoena process, to perform an expensive and time-consuming sham review of all their election equipment and other computers necessary to run county government.

Forcing these three counties to comply with such subpoenas would hamstring their operations.  They would be unable to prepare for and run the upcoming November 2021 election and maybe even the 2022 primary election.

Neither Mastriano nor the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee are authorized to oversee election administration, and the company he plans to engage for this unnecessary and chaotic review has no expertise in analysis of the specialized equipment used in elections.

Mastriano is using the playbook from a recent review scam in Arizona. That effort cost taxpayers in Maricopa County millions of dollars and led both Republicans and Democrats in the state to denounce it for the damage it caused.

Allowing third-parties without knowledge of election administration or necessary credentials to tinker with voting machines could, at a minimum, compromise their security and damage the systems to prevent future operations. That’s why Secretary of State Veronica DeGraffrenreid warned counties that unauthorized reviews of electronic voting systems would result in decertification of the machines, preventing use in future elections.

Fulton County’s machines were recently decertified because county administrators participated in a Mastriano-led scam review, leaving the machines unusable.  Electronic voting machines are highly regulated. Only certified machines are legally permitted in Pennsylvania. Because only a small number of vendors supply machines, it will take time to replace machines and load clean software onto them.

The bottom line is that Mastriano’s escapade will cost the counties millions of dollars both to comply and then to clean up the mess.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, has a variety of options to stop this wild vote chase. He and other Senate leaders can reject these false notions about Pennsylvania’s elections, but he has failed to do so.

There are ways to update Pennsylvania’s election administration to make secure and accessible voting even better for Pennsylvanians. County election officials need more time in advance of Election Day to prepare mail-in ballots for counting, a process known as pre-canvassing.

Current law forbids them from doing so. Early in-person voting and Election Day voter registration have been successful in other states for decades and should be available in the commonwealth. And, perhaps most critically, Pennsylvania’s county election offices – the engine rooms of our democracy – are woefully underfunded.

Those are real solutions to real problems. Instead, Mastriano is chasing ghosts and phantoms, potentially costing taxpayer millions of dollars and putting elections at risk in Philadelphia, York, and Tioga. It’s time for the Senate to put an end to this scam and do the people’s work.

Marian K. Schneider is a voting rights attorney who served as Pennsylvania deputy secretary of state for elections and administration from 2015-2017.

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