(By Marie Albiges of Spotlight PA)
This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s top election official spent nearly three hours Thursday defending her handling of the 2020 presidential election and calling for an end to the “lies that have been proven again and again to be false.”
The meeting of the House State Government Committee centered on what in any other election would have been mundane — guidance to counties on how to handle certain problems with mail ballots. But with intense national focus on Pennsylvania, that guidance became a flash point.
After the election, GOP leadership seized on Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar’s actions to cast doubt on the results. The top Republicans in the Senate called for her resignation, while leaders from both chambers asked Congress to reject the state’s electors for President Joe Biden.
A handful of rank-and-file GOP lawmakers spread outright falsehoods about voter fraud.
The complaints came despite the fact that state Republicans performed exceedingly well in the election, strengthening their hold on the legislature and winning the state auditor general and treasurer’s races. Republicans have so far raised no concern about races they won.
“The attack on our Capitol was the direct result of disinformation and lies — lies that were intentionally spread to subvert the free and fair election and undermine people’s faith in our democracy,” Boockvar said during the hearing, referring to the Jan. 6 rally in Washington that turned deadly when a violent mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol.
Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), the committee chairperson, said Republicans were focused on the future.
“We’re not stuck on the 2020 election. We’ve moved on,” Grove said. “We want a better process going forward, and we’re committed to that.”
Thursday marked the first of 14 election-related hearings Grove said are intended to educate voters on how the elections were run, and provide legislators with recommendations for how they can improve the state’s election law. Democrats have launched a counteroffensive, a series of “Defending Democracy” hearings, which they said will “address the lies” being spread.
Republican House lawmakers spent much of Thursday’s hearing repeating old grievances and raising concerns they said were brought to them by confused voters.
They again accused Boockvar of taking power away from lawmakers by offering guidance on the segregation of mail ballots that arrived after Election Day and on fixing, or “curing,” ballots with mistakes, such as a missing signature. Various courts, however, have ruled that Boockvar’s guidance was lawful and necessary to clarify ambiguous wording in the state code.
Boockvar, who testified virtually Thursday, previewed her defense a day earlier in an Inquirer op-ed, writing that Grove’s hearings were a “ploy” to “rehash spurious allegations and conspiracy theories.”
During the hearing, Boockvar said an Election Law Advisory Board created last year by the legislature was “actually a better place to have these discussions than 14 hearings.”
“I appreciate that, Madam Secretary. And as the body that actually establishes election law and is a bipartisan committee that was established well before the advisory board, I will look for their advisory opinion,” Grove replied.
Both parties agree changes to state law are necessary to improve how elections are run, but they differ greatly in what those changes should be. Democrats want to expand access by implementing automatic voter registration and sending mail ballots to all registered voters, while a small number of Republicans are pushing for an end to the no-excuse mail voting law passed with bipartisan support in 2019 and widely credited for boosting voter turnout.
In a memo seeking support from their colleagues, Sens. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) and Patrick Stefano (R., Fayette) said Gov. Tom Wolf, Boockvar, and the Democratic-led Supreme Court took “advantage” of mail-in voting and “unlawfully usurped legislative power to set the conditions for an election result in their political interest.” At least two other Republican representatives have said they’ll file similar legislation.
Mastriano — a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly and falsely claimed voter fraud was rampant during the 2020 election — attended the Jan. 6 rally at the U.S. Capitol but has said he left when the gathering turned violent. Senate Democrats have asked Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman to investigate Mastriano’s conduct.
Corman (R., Centre) has dismissed those requests and said he wants the Senate to conduct its own investigation through a bipartisan Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform. He previously told Spotlight PA and Votebeat he would hold off on publicly supporting any election-related legislation until that investigation was complete.
Boockvar and others involved in administering elections contend the reforms that are needed are apparent. She and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania are lobbying for more time to precanvass, or process, mail ballots before Election Day.
The GOP-controlled House last year advanced legislation to provide three days of pre-processing but tied the change to banning drop boxes and loosening restrictions on partisan poll watchers. Wolf balked, negotiations stalled, and the legislature never made the changes. As a result, it took counties several days to process mail ballots, extending the count and giving Trump and his Republican allies more time to sow doubt in the results.
The commissioners association said its other top priority is moving the deadline to apply for a mail ballot from seven days to 15 days before an election, to give county election workers more time to mail the ballot to voters and have it returned.
“These two items alone could resolve a significant portion of the challenges counties saw in 2020,” Sherene Hess, an Indiana County commissioner and chair of the association’s election reform committee, said at a virtual news conference Tuesday.
“All levels of government must work together to promote a smoother election process, and as the ones who run our elections, counties must be at the table.”