Pa. court to hear arguments over releasing voter information as part of election investigation

Challengers in the case argue that releasing driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers could put voters at risk

By: - December 13, 2021 7:13 am

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

The case over the release of Pennsylvania voters’ identifying information — driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers — as part of a taxpayer-funded election investigation heads to court this week.

Oral arguments in the now-consolidated case brought by legislative Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro to challenge the review of the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections will take place Wednesday in Commonwealth Court and live-streamed, beginning at 2 p.m.

Now-President Joe Biden won the election in the commonwealth by 80,555 votes. Efforts to review the 2020 election come after a months-long campaign by former President Donald Trump, who made unsubstantiated claims that voter fraud and misconduct resulted in his loss. 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 Senate-initiated review, which comes nearly a year after the 2020 election results were certified, is not a recount, nor will it reinstate Trump to office.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, defendants in the case, have said the probe aims to identify strengths and weaknesses in the state’s electoral process. The GOP lawmakers also argue the information requested earlier this year through a legislative subpoena, issued by the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, from the Department of State, which has election oversight, could help verify voters’ identities. 

Dush heads the 11-member Senate panel that’s tasked with leading the investigation.

Legislative Democrats, the state’s top prosecutor, and three good government groups that joined the case argue that releasing voters’ identifying information could put them at risk for fraud and deter people from registering to vote.

Most of the information requested as part of the subpoena is already publicly available. State law, however, prohibits the public release of someone’s driver’s license number and Social Security number.

“There is no precedent for the notion that there is a legally protected ownership interest in one’s Social Security numbers or even driver’s license numbers when they are in the hands of the government, subject to being shared with the same level of government, a co-equal branch,” Shonin Vance, an attorney for Corman and Dush, said during an October court hearing.

Earlier this year, lawyers for Dush and Corman argued in a brief that the General Assembly has the authority to provide oversight and transparency for Pennsylvania’s elections.

“The subpoena seeks election-related records, the great bulk of which are subject to public access by ordinary citizens, let alone by persons elected to represent those citizens,” they wrote. “And the portion of the records not otherwise readily accessible is information the [Department of State] has made available to other public and private entities.”

The Department of State provided similar information to the Pennsylvania chapter of the League of Women Voters, a challenger in the case, in 2012 as part of a lawsuit filed by the organization to overturn a voter identification law.

“If they gave that information to a private third-party group then, how can they possibly argue against transferring that data to another co-equal branch of government now?” Dush asked in a statement.

Despite initial plans to hold off on hiring a third-party vendor until a court ruling, the Senate GOP finalized a contract with Envoy Sage, LLC, a newly founded Iowa-based company, last month. 

As court challenges continue, Envoy Sage, which has no direct experience investigating elections, will review some information — but not voters’ private information — received as part of the subpoena.

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