Democrats, GOP lawmakers in Pa., elsewhere push back against partisan election reviews

“I can’t be party to what I consider to be the destruction of democracy in the United States,” state Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, said

By: - September 9, 2021 6:30 am

A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas examines Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election during the partisan audit this year in Arizona. Two more states are launching similar reviews. (Photo by Matt York The Associated Press).

By Matt Vasilogambros

Ten months after the 2020 presidential election, Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are following Arizona in pushing investigations rooted in the false claim that the election was stolen.

Inspired by former President Donald Trump’s baseless accusation of widespread voter fraud, the inquiries are taking place in two states won by President Joe Biden. They come as the similarly partisan review wraps up in Arizona, where investigators chased conspiracy theories and accepted millions of dollars from Trump allies.

State lawmakers, mostly Democrats but also some Republicans, and much of the election administration community have lambasted the Arizona effort in Maricopa County for jeopardizing the security and confidence of elections and for tampering with election equipment that top state election officials now say needs to be replaced. Many election officials and lawmakers from both parties fear a repeat in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“I can’t be party to what I consider to be the destruction of democracy in the United States,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. Dan Laughlin, of Erie, a moderate Republican who is running for governor, in an interview. “We ran a clean election in 2020, but there’s a lot of folks who don’t quite believe that because of the distrust that’s been sown. I don’t see it. I don’t see any massive fraud.”

This puts Laughlin at odds with most of his caucus, though he claims the disagreement has not caused a lot of friction. Republican state Sen. Gene Yaw, of Lycoming County, also has said he does not support the audit.

“Many of the emails I receive want an audit because the sender fully believes that Donald Trump will somehow be reinstated as President. That is the underlying rationale for many who support an audit. Unless there is a coup, which is not going to happen in the United States, the 2020 election is over.  Biden is the President. An audit is not going to change that fact irrespective of the outcome.  Sometimes losing is the result of a bad call.  How many sporting events have been lost by a bad call? When these problems arise the focus is:   How do we prevent this from happening again? What can we fix? We don’t go back and replay the game. No one likes losing, but, if we are on that side, we can be civil and respectful,” Yaw wrote in an Aug. 19 statement posted to his official website.

Republican lawmakers who are leading these investigations say they are necessary to restore faith in the democratic process, which they claim was diminished because of expanded mail-in voting in 2020. Many states around the country allowed voters to cast a ballot by mail for the first time because of the pandemic. (Other states have long used mail-in voting.) Top federal security officials have said the 2020 election was the most secure in U.S. history.

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican who sought Trump’s approval for this effort, wrote in a recent op-ed that his state’s review isn’t a recount, but a way of finding flaws in the electoral system.

“I am not interested in a process that panders to any one point of view,” he wrote. “We need to follow the evidence wherever it leads and get real results to make our election system stronger and more secure.”

He has previously stated that he does not have faith in the 2020 results. He did not respond to an interview request by Stateline.

These partisan reviews have the potential of doing significant institutional damage, said Jennifer Morrell, a former county election official in Colorado and Utah. She now is a partner at the Elections Group, a company that works with state and local election officials to help improve voting processes. She said many of those officials are worried the nonpartisan administration of U.S. elections is at risk.

“Elections are managed by professionals, and when you denigrate that professional aspect it’s going to have an impact,” she said. “With enough time and poking around, I’m 100% confident you can find some flaw in the process. It’s a human process—hundreds of poll workers and staff with limited resources. But we carry out these duties in accordance with the law.”

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Partisan election investigations violate the tenets of independent auditing processes. Such processes are designed to protect the security of election equipment, maintain the chain-of-custody rules for ballots and ensure the impartiality of results, said Matthew Germer, an elections fellow at R Street Institute, a conservative-leaning nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. He has concerns about all three states’ reviews.

“You want to make sure your audits are using pre-written rules that you’re not just making up as you go, that you’re hiring auditors that are objective, not seeking an outcome, that the entire auditing process itself has transparency,” said Germer, who coauthored a report on the audits with the voting rights groups the Brennan Center for Justice and Protect Democracy.

“The process so far has been so ad hoc and eyebrow-raising.”

Nonpartisan audits and reviews of elections are common throughout the country. While policies around audits differ by state, most states conduct post-election audits, run by election officials. Some audits review ballots from a random sample of counties, while other states review a percentage of ballots from every county. Other states have mechanisms that trigger a hand recount of ballots by election officials.

The Republican-led audit in Arizona, on the other hand, was conducted by a private firm that lacked election experience, was funded by Trump allies and added errors to the review process, said former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican who co-wrote a June report outlining the review’s shortcomings.

“There are best practices for doing audits and trying to count votes and seeing how things went,” he said in an interview. “Short version: They weren’t followed.”

He added, “If you’re trying to do this for the right reasons, they failed miserably. But if you’re trying to sow some distrust and keep doubts going and you want to make some money and notoriety, you can maybe call this a success.”

Republicans in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin appear to be heading in the same direction, Grayson said.

In Pennsylvania, Corman last month appointed fellow Republican state Sen. Cris Dush, of Jefferson County, to chair the committee that will lead the investigation into the 2020 election. Dush did not respond to multiple interview requests by Stateline.

Dush, in an interview last month with the (Harrisburg) Patriot-News, echoed Trump’s claims about the previous election, saying it was conducted unlawfully.

“Nobody in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can tell you who the winner was in any of these races from November 2020,” said Dush, who won his own seat last year with 74% of the vote. Dush added that Trump called him recently to tell the legislator that he’d be watching him.

Federal and state judges dismissed several lawsuits challenging the Pennsylvania results, ruling there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the state’s election, which Biden won by 80,000 votes. Every Pennsylvania county ran its own post-election audit, examining a portion of the ballots cast. All but four counties then participated in a statewide audit, submitting a sample size of their ballots to confirm the vote count’s accuracy.

Dush will examine court rulings and directives by former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, pertaining to accepting mail-in ballots that arrived late or had mismatching signatures. He expects an audit of ballots, similar to the one in Arizona. Dush visited Phoenix in June to observe the audit.

Pennsylvania Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, of Franklin County, previously demanded access to three county voting systems. Those counties did not cooperate, citing the state’s warning that giving a third party access to election equipment would lead to decertification and would require purchasing replacements. The state had already decertified election equipment reviewed by a private firm in a legislature-led audit in a separate county earlier this year.

“This has been the most examined and litigated presidential election of our lifetime, and that includes 2000,” said Democratic state Sen. Sharif Street. “We all as Americans have to accept the results of elections, even if we don’t like them.”

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In Wisconsin, where Biden won by 21,000 votes, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos this summer tapped former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to lead the investigation.

Gableman has said the election was stolen and visited both the Arizona audit site and an event hosted by Mike Lindell, a Trump ally and the CEO of MyPillow, who continues to peddle election conspiracy theories. Vos, who met with Trump last month on his plane, did not respond to interview requests.

“We will do whatever it takes to help Justice Gableman uncover reports of systematic fraud in our forensic audit,” Vos said in a recent statement to the press.

This is the fourth ongoing investigation into Wisconsin’s election. They include one nonpartisan state audit, another led by a group of Wisconsin residents and an additional review led by Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the Assembly elections committee. She has issued subpoenas to seize voting machines and ballots.

Brandtjen, who also visited the Arizona audit site, did not respond to interview requests.

Brandtjen is in part investigating Milwaukee County, the largest in the state and a major Democratic stronghold. George Christenson, the county clerk, told Stateline that he thinks those subpoenas are invalid. Milwaukee and Brown counties have since rejected the subpoenas. These new bad-faith investigations, Christenson said, add on to the state audits, partial recounts and eight lawsuits—none of which found widespread voter fraud.

“When is enough, enough?” he asked. “Essentially, we had all eyes on us, the entire nation, and it showed unequivocally it was done right.”

Wisconsin’s review will cost taxpayers at least $676,000. It is unclear how much the Pennsylvania audit will cost or how it will be funded.

In Arizona, the effort was almost entirely funded by Trump supporters. While the state Senate contributed $150,000 to Cyber Ninjas, the firm that led the effort, groups tied to Trump allies such as conservative lawyers Sidney Powell and retired Gen. Michael Flynn have given $5.7 million. They did not respond to requests for comment by Stateline. Powell is facing a $1.3 billion lawsuit from Dominion over her false allegations against the election software company after the 2020 election.

It’s hard to ignore the role money has played in these investigations, said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, a progressive nonprofit. Trump and his allies have raised hundreds of millions of dollars since the election. Election misinformation and partisan audits have been lucrative for political fundraising, Ryan said.

“The primary motivation is fundraising,” he said. “Lies about the election have apparently worked really well from the narrow base of Trump supporters. Even if the things they’re saying are completely bananas, even if they’re not rooted in reality, it gets in the press and name recognition.”

GOP politicians spreading these falsehoods, however, may hurt their electoral chances in the future, said Laughlin, the Pennsylvania Republican. He worries the investigation into debunked theories will waste taxpayer dollars, risk the security of the state’s election equipment and destroy Republican voters’ faith in the integrity of elections, dissuading them from voting.

“That’s a dangerous game to play,” he said. “If you’re out there continuing to perpetuate the distrust in the 2020 election, it’s going to hurt our party in the long term.”

Matt Vasilogambros is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared.

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