HARRISBURG -- A Senate committee voted on party lines to subpoena the Department of State to turn over election data, including partial Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers, for every Pennsylvania voter who cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election.
The measure passed by a 7-4 vote, with all Republicans on the committee supporting it and all Democrats opposed. Senate Democrats announced immediately after the meeting that they plan to sue to stop the subpoena demand.
Gov. Tom Wolf said the move is just the latest front in the ongoing effort by Republicans to cast doubt on the 2020 election results to placate supporters of former President Donald Trump who lost in Pennsylvania by 81,000 votes.
“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,” Wolf said. “Senate Republicans would rather cater to the fringe elements of their party who still are perpetuating the Big Lie rather than focus on issues that affect Pennsylvanians’ lives,” he said.
Not even all Senate Republicans fully support the approach being taken by the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, chaired by Sen. Cris Dush, R-Indiana County.
State Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, said he’s not comfortable with the idea of using subpoenas to get personal information about voters and turning it over to a third-party vendor, as the committee apparently plans to do.
“I have a real problem with any part of someone's Social Security number being released. I would be concerned about who has access to it,” Gordner said.
He noted that earlier this year, the Department of Health acknowledged that a private contractor hired to conduct contact tracing of people exposed to COVID-19 had mishandled private information about state residents.
In addition to the personal information about voters, the committee is also using subpoenas to get the information about guidance from the Department of State, as well as training materials and directives, Dush said.
Despite his reservations about seeking personal information about voters, Gordner said that he supports the use of subpoenas since the Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid has refused to testify before the committee as part of its review of the election.
“If the Secretary of Commonwealth says, ‘I'm not going to show up to any hearings anymore, because there's lawsuits,' then you have to examine other opportunities to get information, especially with regard to the guidance last year. Because the biggest legitimate complaint, from my standpoint. is all of the extraordinary guidance that came out of the Department of State last year that wasn't there in previous elections,” he said.
Gordner is not on the intergovernmental operations committee so he didn’t vote on the question of whether to use the subpoena process to compel the Department of State to turn over the information.
This is the second time in two years that a Senate committee has used the subpoena process to try to compel the Wolf Administration to turn over information. The Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee voted last April to issue subpoenas to force the Department of Community and Economic Development to disclose information about the process used to determine which businesses could stay open during the pandemic economic shutdown.
State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, said that he’s not opposed to using the Intergovernmental Operations Committee to conduct a review of the election. However, he said that he doesn’t expect the committee’s work to reveal anything that hadn’t already been documented by an earlier review conducted by the House State Government committee. Both chambers of the General Assembly in June passed House bill 1300, which included a variety of proposed changes to election law, inspired by that House review. That legislation was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf over a provision that would have required expanded voter ID requirements.
Yaw said lawmakers could more quickly make needed election law changes by trying to negotiate with Wolf to see what he’d accept in a voting reform bill than push forward with subpoenas that will be subject to prolonged legal challenges.
Even before Senate Democrats announced plans to file a lawsuit to stop the subpoena, Yaw said that it was clear from their questioning during the committee meeting that they “were building a record” to use in court.
Under questioning by state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks County, Dush said he hasn’t determined what outside contractor the committee will hire to analyze any information provided by the Department of State.
Yaw said that it’s entirely possible that a judge could rule that the Department of State doesn’t have to comply with the subpoena until after Senate Republicans disclose to whom they plan to give the information or order the state to release some, but not all of the information, being sought with the subpoenas.
Senate Democrats announced Wednesday that they plan to sue to ask the courts “to confirm that the Senate is not the place to conduct an untimely election contest or to undertake an audit that will force election officials to violate federal law and invade the privacy of each and every Pennsylvania voter.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said that much of the information being sought by Senate Republicans is publicly available without turning to the subpoena process.
“These subpoenas only highlight how Republican leaders in our Commonwealth continue to try and manufacture controversy out of nothing—instead of a bombshell, the majority of this information is publicly available and doesn’t require force to be compelled,” Shapiro said. “My office is aware that voters’ private and sensitive information is also being requested. We will do everything within our power to protect Pennsylvanians’ personal data,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said the investigation launched by Dush’s committee will either reveal problems that the General Assembly should correct or dispel the perception that there are problems that need to be corrected.
“I look forward to seeing this investigation continue to move forward in a way that is thoughtful, responsible and legally sound, and I remain confident the process will produce a result that is credible to all eyes,” Corman said. “When we receive this information from the Department of State, every necessary step will be taken to ensure it is completely secure, including making any vendor personnel sign non-disclosure agreements to make sure the data are protected under penalty of law,” he said.