By: Christopher Chau
Following the contentious 2020 election, controversy surrounded the validity of Pennsylvania’s election process as voters requested and submitted record numbers of mail-in ballots. While no-excuse mail-in voting was legalized under Act 77 in 2019, Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate quickly turned against the practice and claimed that it was vulnerable to voter fraud. On September 3, 2021, the Republican majority announced a “full forensic investigation,” in what seems to be an audit of the election results, voting to subpoena the PA Department of State for voter records along with nonpublic personal identification information, such as Social Security and driver’s license numbers. According to Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman: “This is about looking at our system inside because hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Pennsylvanians, have questions.” While Corman asserted that voters’ information will be kept private, many remained concerned about the invasiveness of the audit. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats and PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro criticized the measure, citing that there was no evidence of voter fraud and that the investigation was a waste of taxpayer money and an invasion of voters’ privacy.
Pennsylvania’s electoral process is further complicated by its voter database, the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, known as the SURE system, that replaced individual counties’ voter rolls. In 2016, the Department of State introduced an application programming interface, or API, to allow for political parties and advocacy groups to create voter registration apps and websites. The process slowly replaced paper registration applications, with most voter information being sorted through an online database. The Department of State then sends each application to local counties’ boards of election for processing. During a Senate inquiry into voter fraud in August 2021, Republicans claimed that the API system was susceptible to outside influence and third-party groups trying to infiltrate the system. The Department of State previously disputed these claims in 2020, citing that there is no direct evidence that third parties could access the SURE system through API.
Almost immediately after the announcement of the audit, all 21 Senate Democrats sued to block the audit and argued that it illegally violated state election law and that it seeks information that is barred from public disclosure. According to Art. VII, § 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, only the judicial branch has the power over the “trial and determination of contested elections,” rather than the General Assembly. Pennsylvania already requires its Department of State to certify its election results through a random statewide statistical sample under 25 P.S. § 3031.17. In addition, it involves an optional Risk-Limiting Audit (RLA) by several counties and election officials to review a random sample of ballots, all processes overseen by the state Auditor General. The official election audits were completed in February 2021 and have detected no signs of voter fraud or irregularities with strong evidence of accurate vote counts, contrary to the Senate Republicans’ claims.
Election experts and pro-democracy groups also criticized the audit, explaining that the effort went against the state government’s interest to promote voter confidence and instead sow doubt that promoted voter confusion. David Becker, the head of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research stated: “These kinds of audits are not audits … they are partisan efforts to try to delegitimize a past election.” Another blow to the Republicans’ audit efforts came from Arizona’s own election audit in Maricopa County. It provided no evidence of voter fraud and even gave a wider margin of victory to the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. As of October 26, 2021, the Republicans’ election audit has been put on hold because of the Democrats’ court challenge. Despite the setbacks, the Republicans pledged to continue with the investigation once the suit is settled, despite surmounting partisan and public pressure.