Without apologies, Pa. Republicans forge ahead with election hearings spree

Pa. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre (L) and Rep. Seth Grove, R-York (R) speak during a state Capitol news conference on Wednesday, 9/2/20 (Screen Capture)

One down, 13 to go.

Pennsylvania House Republicans finished their first of 14 hearings on the 2020 election and the state’s voting laws this week.

The hearings, set to run through late April, were scheduled by new House State Government Chairman Seth Grove, R-York. They’ll take a look at everything from voting machines and vendors to “election integrity policies.”

“We’re a legislative oversight body,” Grove said at a press conference. “Our job is to evaluate how state agencies execute the law and the laws themselves.”

Republicans first suggested they’d schedule the hearings in the days after the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump and his allies — including some Pennsylvania state lawmakers — started to spread doubt about the results.

The run of hearings was opened Thursday with an appearance by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. An appointee of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, Boockvar is the commonwealth’s chief elections official.

For nearly three hours Thursday afternoon, she and a deputy went back and forth with GOP lawmakers in a respectful, but occasionally tense, exchange over her authority to interpret state law for the state’s 67 counties.

Republicans repeatedly tried to get Boockvar and Deputy Secretary of Elections Jonathan Marks to say they went beyond the letter of state law.

Guidance from Boockvar included telling counties to release the names of voters whose mail-in ballots were rejected on Election Day to preventing signature verification of mail-in ballots

Those decisions, Boockvar argued, fell within her office’s discretion, and matched the spirit of state law.

“We think there is a clear constitutional preference for enfranchisement,” Boockvar said.

The hearing was one of the first public discussions of state election law with both Republicans and the Wolf administration present since the 2020 election.

In the intervening three months, some Republican lawmakers pushed a narrative that the election had been unlawfully influenced by Boockvar, Wolf and the state Supreme Court by allowing more ballots to be counted.

They hoped to delay or deny certification of the election with legally dubious legislation, toyed with subpoenas, propagated misinformation and signed letters to Congress to dispute the results, often using taxpayer-funded communications channels.

Capitol siege lays bare GOP electoral misinformation in Harrisburg

It isn’t just the House looking into the election In the Senate, an investigatory committee on “election integrity and reform” with subpoena power was created by a party line vote this month. It has yet to meet.

Boockvar called out the efforts in a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece this week.

She said the efforts were an “incredibly inefficient use of time and tax dollars but also a clear ploy to continue to propagate false allegations that have already been debunked by independent fact-checkers and trusted election officials, as well as resoundingly dismissed by state and federal judges, Republican and Democratic, in more than 60 court cases.”

Conspiracy theories were absent from Thursday’s hearing. And Grove took issue with Boockvar’s strong words. But he offered no apologies for his, or his colleagues’ role in spreading misinformation and distrust.

“In 2016, this place was filled with people objecting to President Trump’s electoral votes,” Grove said, comparing peaceful protests to the violent insurrection in the U.S. Capitol that killed five people, one of them from Pennsylvania.

Grove himself organized a December letter to Congress asking for federal lawmakers to object to Pennsylvania’s results. He also hosted a press conference on Nov. 20 casting doubt on Dominion Voting Systems, a private voting machine supplier, after they backed out of a last-minute hearing.

During last November’s press conference, Grove did not describe any specific allegation against Dominion. But, he repeatedly cited vague “accusations,” and left the burden on the company to disprove their unspecific security concerns.

“If they have nothing to hide, why are they hiding from us?” Grove asked rhetorically.

Chris Deluzio, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed that there were good faith questions to be asked about voting machines companies internal security, for example.

But most of that action needed to take place on a federal level, not a state level. And the questions Grove and others raised after the election struck him as bad faith efforts to weaken confidence in the election.

“So many of these supposed questions could be answered simply by looking at the Secretary of [State Kathy Boockvar’s] certification to use Dominion,” Deluzio told the Capital-Star.

The next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 28. House Democrats also have planned their own series of hearings as counterprogramming. 

Grove and other Republicans have made clear that they plan to modify state election law. How far reaching the changes will be is unclear., But Grove has mentioned Florida — which has early voting, no-excuse absentee ballots, and voter ID laws — as a positive example.

Other Republicans have pushed to eliminate mail-in ballots, citing angry constituents but little evidence.

Either way, Democrats are not looking forward to the proceedings.

“We can go through this process for 13 weeks, and we can re-litigate and we can ask the same questions over and over again,” Rep. Margo Davidson, of Delaware County, the ranking Democrat on the State Government Committee, said. But “there are some voters who will never be satisfied with the results of this election. Thirteen hearings is not going to change that.”

With one election barely over, state lawmakers look to make fixes ahead of the next one