Senate GOP leader proposes special panel to review 2020 election

GOP Sen. Jake Corman reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf's budget proposal (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

In one of his first acts in his new leadership post, Sen. President Pro Tempore Jake Corman moved on Monday to convene a panel of lawmakers to review the 2020 election and offer reforms to the state’s election code. 

The special committee that Corman, R-Centre, outlined in a memo to his colleagues would consist of five Republican senators, including Corman, and four Democrats.

While his office is still finalizing the details of the proposal, Corman said the panel would broadly review the “accuracy and security” of ballots before, during and after Election Day, as well as the role of judges and the Secretary of State in influencing election administration.

The committee would then compile its findings in a report with recommendations for new legislation.  

Corman plans to introduce his proposal as a resolution, which must pass a series of floor and committee votes when the 50-member Senate returns to Harrisburg in January. His announcement comes more than a month after Republicans in the state House scrapped their own plans to create a five-member select committee to investigate the 2020 General Election and recommend changes to state law. 

That proposal from outgoing Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, passed a key House committee on a party-line vote in November. But it collapsed after key Republicans withdrew their support for the measure, with one telling the Capital-Star that the committee might “[feed] into uncertainty and public concern.”

Corman’s office maintained Monday that lawmakers still have work to do to review the Nov. 3 election, which saw record-high voter turnout and a historic volume of mail-in ballots. 

The 2020 primary and general election were the first statewide races after the General Assembly voted, in October 2019, to eliminate straight-ticket voting and make all voters eligible to cast mail-in ballots.

The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated Pennsylvania’s vote by mail expansion, and county election officials say they were forced to work round-the-clock to educate voters about the new laws and process millions of mail-in ballots.

Counties also implemented parts of the state election code differently, with some allowing voters to fix problems with mail-in ballots or vote early at satellite voting sites.

Election officials say the rollout of the new voting laws was chaotic and, at times, confusing for voters – especially after President Donald Trump began to claim, contrary to evidence, that mail-in voting is less secure than casting a ballot in person. 

The discrepancies in county-level voter services also led to a series of unsuccessful lawsuits from the Trump Campaign.

Corman said in his memo that legislative offices have fielded thousands of calls and emails from voters who are concerned about election security. Spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said some of those concerns may be fueled by misinformation, but that it was the Senate’s responsibility to investigate them nonetheless.

“We have to see what problems were fact and what problems were fiction … and then introduce legislation that will fix those issues,” Kocher told the Capital-Star. 

The special committee Corman is proposing would be authorized to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to testify – powers shared by the Senate’s two dozen standing committees, which advance legislation on everything from transportation to environmental policy. 

Unlike those committees, the special committee has a narrow focus for its work and dissolves once its agenda is complete. And while its members can recommend legislation, they cannot vote to advance bills to the full Senate. 

The Senate’s rules grant the president pro tempore the power to appoint members to special committees.

Corman announced Monday he would tap Sen. Wayne Langerholc, a Cambria County Republican and former prosecutor, to serve as committee chair, and Sens. Lisa Baker of Luzerne County, Ryan Aument of Lancaster County, and Mike Regan of York County as committee members. 

Sen. Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, will appoint Democratic members. 

Spokeswoman Brittany Crampsie said Monday that Costa’s office will wait to see Corman’s resolution and discuss it with their legal team and caucus members before deciding how Senate Democrats would participate. 

But Crampsie also called into question the need for a special committee to investigate election security, saying that the state already had panels to conduct such a review. 

She said Corman could tap the Senate State Government Committee to review election administration. That’s what the state House moved to do in November, after its own efforts to create a special committee fizzled. 

Crampsie also said the General Assembly could pass the job to the state’s Election Law Advisory Board, which the legislature created this year to evaluate and recommend changes to state election laws.

Gov. Tom Wolf nominated 18 members to the board last summer, and the Senate unanimously approved them in September.

“We have two committees prepared to do this work,” Crampsie said Monday. “It doesn’t make sense to create a third.”