New state board kicks off ‘nuts and bolts’ review of Pa.’s election laws

Members of the Election Law Advisory Board meet over Zoom on Jan. 28.

*This story was updated on Jan. 28 to reflect that Joe Kantz was elected vice chair of the Election Law Advisory Board.

What happens when a state lawmaker who spread disinformation about the 2020 election is asked to review the state election laws, and to do it alongside beleaguered election officials to have to implement them?

Pennsylvania is about to find out. 

The state’s newly created Election Law Advisory Board convened its first session Thursday, meeting for an hour over Zoom to elect officers and let its members get acquainted. 

The 23-member commission brings together current and former election officials, local leaders and state lawmakers to assess Act 77, the mail-in voting law that Pennsylvania adopted in 2019 and implemented for the first time in 2020. 

Created in March 2020 as part of a tweak to Pennsylvania’s election code, the panel is due to publish a report with the findings of its review by June 30. That report will also include recommendations for state lawmakers, who have said amending Act 77 is a top priority for 2021.

The panel unanimously chose Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence, a Democrat, to serve as its chairperson Thursday, and Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz as its vice chair. 

Whether the group will reach such speedy consensus on any other business remains to be seen. 

Its members include state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, who was appointed to his seat by House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, in July. 

This fall, Diamond was one of the loudest voices in the General Assembly embracing the Trump campaign’s baseless claims that the 2020 election had been “stolen” by voter fraud and manipulated voter laws in states that swung Democratic.

He was part of the group of Republican lawmakers who used a faulty analysis of state data to argue that Pennsylvania had 200,000 unaccounted votes in the Nov. 3 election – a claim that members of Congress later trumpeted while voting to reject the state’s electoral college vote. 

Diamond said Thursday that he’s grateful to be on the review panel, and that he hoped to call on his experience running for office as a major party and independent candidate.  

“I’m glad to be here talking about the nuts and bolts” of election administration, Diamond said. “If we have faith in nuts and bolts, we will have faith in outcomes.”

Local election directors steadfastly defended the accuracy and security of the 2020 election results, as former president Donald Trump and his allies refused to accept them. There is no evidence to support claims, made by Trump and others, that the results were tainted by widespread fraud.

Amy Cozze, Northampton County’s chief election registrar, reminded other commissioners of the toll that disinformation took on Pennsylvania’s local election officials, leading them to quit their jobs in droves last year

“We’re a dying breed,” Cozze quipped to her colleagues. “I’m hoping we can discuss why that [exodus] happened and how we prevent that from happening in the future. You can look at people having experience in the trenches and learn from the troubles we had.”

The Election Law Advisory Board isn’t the only panel taking a close look at Pennsylvania’s election laws in 2021. 

The House State Government Committee last week kicked off a separate oversight effort last week, a series of 14 public hearings to review the 2020 election.

The state Senate created an investigatory panel earlier this month with the intent of reviewing election law and recommending new legislation. Unlike the election law review board, the Senate panel has the power to subpoena witnesses. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, has already appointed five Republicans to that panel. Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, has not decided whom to appoint, or whether his caucus will even participate, a spokeswoman said Thursday.