Pa. House Majority Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, meets the press after Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Tuesday, 2/4/2020 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)
Repeating a point they have made for the past month, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leadership released a letter Thursday affirming that the General Assembly cannot overturn the results of the 2020 election in the Keystone State.
But, just 24 hours later, the top two House Republicans turned around and signed a letter calling for Congress to reject Pennsylvania’s electors sent to the state’s 18 representatives and two U.S. senators.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden beat Republican President Donald Trump by more than 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, according to certified results, part of Biden’s path to presidency with a total of 306 electoral votes.
Trump has since claimed, without evidence, that fraud led to his defeat, a claim rejected by even top officials in his own administration.
Trump’s rejection of the results has sparked to a number of lawsuits, most of which have been rejected in court. It has also inspired many of his supporters to protest and call for state legislatures to overturn the result in some key swing states, such as Pennsylvania.
GOP legislative leadership — including House Speaker Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, of Centre County, publicly rejected the argument that they could appoint pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College, overriding the popular vote this week.
They first aired their concerns in early November before Election Day, and have stuck to their point — rooted in process — despite increasing pressure, from weekly rallies on the Capitol steps to a presidential meeting with some rank-and-file Republicans.
The letter, released Thursday, reiterated the GOP leaders’ legal concerns.
“Some of the actions requested by our residents would require us to disregard the statutes and Constitution we have fought so hard to protect during this pandemic,” the letter states.
Along with Cutler and Corman, it was signed by Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, of Westmoreland County, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, of Centre County.
Specifically, GOP leadership cited state law, which mandates that voters, not legislators, pick a presidential winner. Also, they argued that the state constitution does not allow for the General Assembly to meet before January absent an invitation from Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.
“Ignoring these state laws to appoint electors would :set a precedent that a simple majority of the General Assembly can override the will of the people as evidenced by the popular vote,” the letter says.
The argument, based in process, has drawn criticisms from some in the GOP base. But while refusing to break state protocol, Cutler and Benninghoff turned around Friday and disputed the results in a letter to Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation.
Joined by dozens of other Republican state senators and representatives, the letter cites state court rulings and Wolf administration guidance for undermining state election law.
Specifically, the letter cites the state Supreme Court’s decision to allow late arriving mail-in ballots to be counted due to mail-delays, as well as guidance pushing counties to allow voters to fix improperly marked mail-in ballots.
“The aforementioned conduct has undermined the lawful certification of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the Electoral College,” the letter says.
The letter originally had 75 Republican signatures, or just more than half of all GOP lawmakers.
But at least six Republicans representing suburban districts claimed they were mistakenly added to the letter.
“I did not give the OK to sign onto the letter,” said Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin.
Another Republican, Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said his name should be in the letter to Congress but was left off due to “administrative oversight.”
An updated list of signatures was not yet available. Republicans also sent two seperate letters out Friday calling for Attorney General Josh Shapiro to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the election, and for an inspector general review of the Department of State’s internal policies and procedures.
The same concerns in the congressional lettee have been included in Trump campaign to delay the certification of Pennsylvania’s results. A federal judge rejected the claims, and tossed the suit. It is now on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The letter represents the farthest leadership has gone to meet the demands of what some rank-and-file Republicans have been agitating for for weeks.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, and state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, introduced two similar, non-binding resolutions to dispute the 2020 election results with much fanfare in late November. They were backed by 49 out of 137 legislative Republicans.
The legislation was filed on Nov. 30, just hours before the General Assembly disbanded until January.
The lawmakers then reintroduced their motion this week, even though Republican leadership made clear Monday they would not meet again this year.
The Electoral College is set to meet Dec. 14, making any action disputing Pennsylvania’s results afterwards moot. But Congress members could dispute the result at a joint session of the House and Senate in Washington D.C. in early January, as was requested by Cutler and 70 plus colleagues.
Hardline Republicans made more noise this week when they asked for Wolf to call a special session of the General Assembly on the election.
Let me be clear: There is absolutely no reason to call a special session.
President Trump’s own attorney general said there was no widespread fraud.
We had a free and fair election and now it’s time to move on. https://t.co/8X858mIGdq
— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) December 4, 2020
The state constitution also allows for a special session if a majority of legislators in both chambers sign a petition asking for one. But as with the election resolution, the special session did not have majority support. Just 32 Republicans signed on.
In response this entire week, Republicans leaders have been making the same process points to their constituents that were reiterated Thursday.
“I understand that is not the answer you want to hear, but I do believe someone should tell you the truth about what is being proposed vs what can actually be done,” Cutler said in a Facebook post Monday.
In response, Cutler and others have been greeted by irate social media comments, some threatening primaries for not overriding Biden’s victory.
Bobby Lawrence, a Franklin County GOP committee person, organized a Capitol protest Monday to lobby the General Assembly to block election results, citing concerns about fraud.
Lawrence told the Capital-Star Friday he wasn’t surprised by the legislators’ arguments. But he also didn’t think proof of fraud — which the Trump campaign has yet to prove in court — was needed for the legislature to block the statewide results and appoint electors,
“The reason we would do an article to remedy [the election] is because a majority of Pennsylvanians feel that the election was not conducted properly,” Lawrence claimed.
He claimed that Supreme Court precedent, including Bush vs. Gore, gave state legislatures the right to break state law to appoint electors.
While a majority of Republicans may distrust the results, it is not true among all voters.
A Morning Consult poll conducted Nov. 20 through 23 found that just 33 percent of voters thought the 2020 election was not free and fair. In Pennsylvania, 57 percent of voters trusted the results.
Republican leadership did say in their letter that they planned to “use their oversight and the statutory power of the legislature to investigate and seek answers” to the administration and security of the 2020 election.
Such an investigation would occur next year. Republicans have also signaled that they plan to amend state election law further. That would likely include changes to Act 77, the state’s mail-in voting law that passed with near-unanimous Republican approval in 2019.
In a joint statement, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said that the election was “free, fair, and secure” and “executed with the utmost integrity by our elections officials in every county and a cohort of poll workers across the state.”
The Democratic leaders also criticized their Republican counterparts for not agreeing to a deal to allow counties to process mail-in ballots early, leading to a prolonged ballot count that sowed doubt.
“While [Republicans] continue their fanciful quest in pursuit of fraud, the priorities of the Senate and House Democrats will choose instead to focus on providing relief to families and small businesses suffering in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” McClinton and Costa said.
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