A year after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, election review and reform efforts continue in Pa.

The nationwide shock of the attack, which ultimately left nine people dead, has not faded

By: - Thursday January 6, 2022 9:56 am

A year after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, election review and reform efforts continue in Pa.

The nationwide shock of the attack, which ultimately left nine people dead, has not faded

By: - 9:56 am

Rioters are tear-gassed as they storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images/The Conversation).

Rioters are tear-gassed as they storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images/The Conversation).

It’s been one year since a campaign of unsubstantiated election fraud claims erupted into hundreds of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol — obstructing the peaceful transfer of power — in an attempt to overturn now-President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

Biden won the 2020 election in the commonwealth by 80,555 votes. Legal challenges to the results failed in court, and two post-election audits carried out in Pennsylvania after the presidential election found no evidence of fraud. 

The nationwide shock of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, which ultimately left nine people dead, has not faded. And in Pennsylvania, neither have efforts to review past elections and potentially reform the state’s election law.

In the 14 months since the 2020 General Election, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has focused on what it’s billing as reform, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreeing that the state election law needs to be changed.

Democrats, however, say some of their GOP colleagues helped feed voter distrust with actions leading up to Jan. 6 and post-2020 election reviews.

“Republicans in this state and others attempted to erode faith in our elections, which ultimately culminated in what we saw in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of last year,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, told the Capital-Star in a written statement.

Before his “Save America” rally, the morning precursor to the deadly riot, former President Donald Trump shared a Jan. 4 letter from 21 state Senate Republicans asking Congress to delay Electoral College certification, citing the need for an investigation after “inconsistent and questionable” conduct.

A month before Trump told his supporters, who later smashed windows and attacked police, that they wouldn’t have a country anymore if they didn’t “fight like hell,” 64 legislative Republicans sent a letter urging Congress to object to the commonwealth’s electoral votes. 

Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The group of GOP lawmakers accused Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the Department of State, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court of overstepping their authority and undermining the lawful acceptance of the results.

Defending calls for objections and a focus on sweeping reform

The Capital-Star reached out to House and Senate Republican leadership and the chairs of the State Government committees, which typically handle election matters, to ask if they regret signing their name to documents challenging the 2020 election.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, who chairs the House State Government Committee, were the only ones to respond.

Grove, through a spokesperson, defended the legal authority for members of Congress to file objections to individual electoral votes, citing Democrats’ objections in 2000, 2004, and 2016 and referencing protests at the state Capitol and threats demanding Trump’s presidential electors not vote for him.

“The purpose of that [Dec. 4] letter was to cite the vast manipulation of the elections by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Wolf administration,” he said. “Had I known at the time, I would have added [then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar’s] unilateral decision to throw out 10,000 votes and her unilateral decision to steer private election administration grants to specific counties.”

Grove added that nothing in the letter to Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation was “factually inaccurate, asked for the decertification of the election, nor caused the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” which he and lawmakers from York and Adams counties denounced.

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for Cutler, did not directly answer whether Cutler regrets signing his name to the Dec. 4 letter asking for objections to the election.

Straub told the Capital-Star that Cutler “made it clear” leading up to the 2020 General Election that actions from the Wolf administration and state Supreme Court would cause delays, procedural confusion, and distrust in the outcomes.

The timeline, he said, starts in 2018 and 2019 when Wolf “unilaterally decertified” Pennsylvania voting machines, referencing a directive from the Wolf administration that required counties to update their election machines with ones that have a voter-verifiable paper ballot or paper record of votes cast.

Straub added that Cutler repeatedly called for election reviews. The first request came in November 2020. Cutler also signed on to two December letters, one to Attorney General Josh Shapiro asking for an independent prosecutor to review election conduct, and another to Inspector General Lucas Miller, which requested a review of the Department of State’s actions.

On Nov. 10, 2020, a group of 26 House and Senate Republicans, barely a fifth of all GOP lawmakers, also called on the General Assembly to delay election certification until they conduct an audit. About a week later, their efforts for a legislative review fizzled out, but work to bring election reform has not faded in the House.

House GOP announces an audit of the 2020 election results in Pa. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso).

Beginning in January 2021, the House State Government Committee hosted a series of hearings with election officials and experts to gauge challenges faced in the 2020 General Election. After hours of testimony over several months, Grove unveiled a sweeping overhaul of the state’s election code in June.

House Bill 1300, dubbed the “Voting Rights Protection Act,” answered some pleas from county election officials but called for stricter voter identification requirements — a point of contention among Democrats.

The proposal allowed early mail-in ballot processing and counting, commonly called pre-canvassing, permitted early in-person voting, pushed back deadlines to give county officials additional time, and allowed voters to fix mail-in ballots with a missing signature.

Wolf vetoed the bill, citing its voter identification requirements. In July, the governor softened his stance on voter ID restrictions, prompting Grove to reintroduce his proposal as House Bill 1800, which has yet to see a final House vote.

Reflecting Wednesday on the Jan. 6 attack, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, announced election reform legislation.

Named the “K. Leroy Irvis Voting Rights Protection Act,” for the House’s first, and thus far only, Black speaker, the proposal allows for early voting, drop boxes, and same-day registration. McClinton’s bill also includes 21 days of pre-canvassing and supports statewide electronic poll books.

The violence at the U.S. Capitol was “the direct result of lies and rhetoric still being spewed by some who cannot accept the results of the 2020 election more than a year later, even after investigations found no fraud occurred,” she said in a statement.

Calls for accountability amid an expanded Senate GOP election review

The Senate State Government Committee, chaired by Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, is drafting a bipartisan election reform bill. But a seldom-used panel’s investigation into the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections has become the most visible and controversial election-related effort in the last year.

State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Sept. 15, 2021 Senate hearing to approve subpoenas for a legislative investigation of the 2020 election as panel chair Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, listens. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Initially launched in July 2021 by Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Trump ally who attended the Jan. 6 rally and subsequent march to the Capitol, the so-called “forensic investigation” focused on reviewing election and voting records in three Pennsylvania counties.

Mastriano, who is expected to announce a formal gubernatorial campaign on Saturday, has positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate and garnered attention as a vocal opponent of COVID-19 shutdowns and mitigation measures during the early days of the pandemic. 

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

He also amplified baseless claims of voter fraud, passing off the wrong information about mail-in ballot totals and hosting a November 2020 hearing in Gettysburg where Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and other supporters parroted unsubstantiated claims of fraud before a panel of Republican lawmakers. Trump called in, telling attendees: “We have to turn the election over.” 

In the months since Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, replaced Mastriano as chairman of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee — an appointment that resulted in a GOP feud — the taxpayer-funded review expanded with a legislative subpoena for election records and voters’ identifying information from the Department of State.

With challenges to a request for driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers, part of the subpoena is tied up in court.

The 11-member Senate panel, where Republicans hold the majority, also entered into a six-month, $270,000 contract with Envoy Sage, LLC, an Iowa-based company with no direct election-related experience, to perform the review and recommend future reform and voter integrity measures.

A document submitted to county officials, and obtained by the Capital-Star, states that Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, helped coordinate the Wake Technology Services, Inc. election review in Fulton County and asked the company to inspect absentee ballots.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, was one of dozens of Republicans in the General Assembly who argued the 2020 general election had “irregularities” worth examining. He also signed a letter asking Congress to delay certification of the state’s electoral results in January and endorsed the taxpayer-funded Senate election probe.

“The investigation is just what it is,” Corman said during a November interview after he entered the race for governor. “If it finds nothing, it finds nothing. If it finds something that we can do that’s actionable, to make laws better and more secure, our goal has always been stated from the beginning, make sure it’s [as] easy to vote as possible and make sure that vote is as secure as possible.”

Dush and Corman have said the probe is not a recount meant to reinstate Trump to office, saying the review aims to identify strengths and weaknesses in Pennsylvania’s elections.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, addresses a crowd of Trump supporters at the Pennsylvania state Capitol on Saturday, Nov. 7, the day the presidential race was called for Democrat Joe Biden. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Critics, including the Senate Democrats, Wolf, and Shapiro, have dubbed the investigation a “sham.” Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, who did not respond to a request for comment, and Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, are the only Republicans in the upper chamber to publicly oppose the review.

“The contract that we have seen only deepens my opposition to this effort,” Costa told the Capital-Star of the election investigation. “The vendor is not qualified, nor were they selected through an open and transparent process.”

Costa said the upper chamber should focus on COVID-19 recovery, specifically spending Pennsylvania’s allocation of American Rescue Plan funds, “to actually improve individuals’ lives.” The Allegheny County Democrat added that lawmakers should work on legislation to give local officials time to process and count ballots and ensure the once-bipartisan legislation to expand mail-in voting operates efficiently.

Since the restructuring, Mastriano, still a member of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, has stayed quiet about the review and its progress. He has also refused to speak to his involvement with an election review in Fulton County, carried out by a private firm with ties to Sidney Powell, a pro-Trump lawyer who helped file lawsuits to challenge the 2020 election.

Records obtained by the Capital-Star and government watchdogs through Right-to-Know requests confirm that Mastriano and Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, who also serves on the Senate panel leading the investigation, helped facilitate an off-the-books, third-party review in the rural Pennsylvania county after the 2020 election.

A document submitted to county officials states that Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, coordinated the Wake Technology Services, Inc. election review in Fulton County. Wake TSI was contracted to a group founded by pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.

After county officials disclosed their compliance and maintained the probe was secure, the Department of State decertified the voting machines. Then-acting Secretary of State Veronica Deggrafenreid and Dominion Voting Machines said they could not verify the equipment was safe to use. And Fulton County was left to deal with the financial consequences of replacing the equipment.

Costa, also a member of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, said Ward and Mastriano’s efforts to help facilitate the Fulton County review, and attempt others across the state, should “disqualify them from serving on this committee.”

“And I believe Sen. Mastriano should be facing additional repercussions for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection,” he said, noting that he joined his Democratic colleagues in calling for his resignation last year. “But since he has shown unwilling to do that, he should be censured by the Senate body as a whole.”

Costa added: “It is remarkably inappropriate to serve as an elected official when one shows such disregard for our elections.”

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