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PA's Partisan Election 'Audit' Just Started and, Yup, It's Already a Mess

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GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania, a state Joe Biden won by 80,000 votes, demonstrated their continued loyalty to the former president this week by pressing more of his baseless claims around the 2020 election. After months of top GOP leaders in the state resisting Trump's demands, a group of senators within the "Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee" (which is not normally charged with overseeing elections) voted to issue subpoenas to Democratic Governor Tom Wolf's administration. The unprecedented subpoenas demand the personal ID records of every Pennsylvania voter in the state, including names, dates of birth, driver's license numbers, addresses, and the last four digits of social security numbers.

Calling it a "forensic investigation" designed to determine whether voter rolls in the state were compromised, the Committee apparently intends to conduct a version of an Arizona-style "audit" of the vote—with findings of voting irregularities and fraud pre-ordained. The process itself is red-meat for the MAGA base, who have been fed a constant stream of misinformation on right-wing media and the internet about election fraud, including the bizarre and false claim that tens of thousands of dead Pennsylvanians voted. These claims already have been debunked in multiple courts and by two actual post-election audits in the state following the election. But the former president has kept his followers angry and mistrustful through his sustained rhetoric over a stolen election. They continue to believe the fraud occurred even though the dead voters somehow kept the GOP in control of the Pennsylvania legislature and largely returned their House delegation to Congress. If this was a massive election steal, it was a very dumb one.

Gov. Wolf blasted the subpoenas as a sham designed to further the Big Lie about the election by "undermining confidence in our elections by bringing an Arizona-style circus to Pennsylvania." He stated, "Let's be very clear, this information request is merely another step to undermine democracy, confidence in our elections and to capitulate to Donald Trump's conspiracy theories about the 2020 election." He then took direct aim at the Republicans behind the effort and drew a connection to the January 6 insurrection. "It is a direct continuation of the same lies that resulted in the attack on the Capitol, and that have done so much to destabilize our political institutions over the ten months since last year's election," Wolf stated. "As even members of the Pennsylvania Republican caucus have acknowledged, this charade has to stop."

The force behind the subpoenas is committee chair Cris Dush, who traveled to Arizona and has been complimentary of their efforts. This admiration comes despite the process there becoming a national punchline as "auditors" used ultraviolet lights to scan for bamboo fibers on alleged Chinese paper and trafficked in conspiracy theories (including one about chickens on a farm owned by one of the County Supervisors being fed paper ballots before the farm burned down.) In Arizona, a third party outfit called "Cyber Ninjas" connected to false election conspiracy claims nevertheless gained access to sensitive data and machines, and the handling of the equipment was so unorthodox and haphazard that the equipment had to be decertified at a cost to taxpayer of over $2 million.

Already, an unauthorized "review" of voting equipment in Fulton County, PA, which was made at the request of two GOP state senators and funded by a "non-profit" affiliated with Trump-aligned attorney Sydney Powell, led to decertification of voting machines in that county. Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid issued the decertification in July, citing the third-party review as violative of state law. Neither the county nor the state can verify that Fulton's voting machines "are safe to use in future elections," she wrote the board in a letter. The contractor, Wake TSI, later worked on the Arizona "audit."

The subpoenas issued by the GOP-controlled Committee have not yet identified what third party vendors (such as Wake TSI or Cyber Ninjas) might ultimately have access to the data, and this has Democratic lawmakers concerned. "You are incapable right now today while we are considering this vote to tell the members of this committee and the public who exactly is going to have access to that information, how that information is going to be used and whether or not that information is going to be made public," said state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, a Bucks County Democrat. State Sen. Jay Costa concurred. "Could be an open invitation to identity fraud. Could be an open invitation to many nefarious things that could occur. That's exactly what our argument is," Costa said.

The long term damage of unprofessional, politically-motivated, third party "audits" of election results is difficult to quantify, but its immediate effects—from helping justify draconian voter suppression laws across multiple states to fueling violent insurrection at the Capitol by radicals—are already clear. The mere presence of an "investigation," as the GOP learned from Benghazi and Hillary Clinton's email server, is enough to plant significant doubts in the minds of the base and keep the grift of political donations from them going.

But there is a cost to the GOP as well that it may not yet appreciate: The more its own base believes the system is unfair and rigged against them, the less likely they are to participate in it. This was a key factor in the GOP's losses in the Georgia senate run-off elections which handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats. Whether these doubts spill into the 2022 midterm elections and actually create opportunities for Democrats remains to be seen.