A partisan fight brews over election audit funding in Pa.'s new budget

Gov. Tom Wolf

Gov. Tom Wolf Commonwealth Media Services

Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign a $39.8 billion state budget that was sent to him by lawmakers last week, but one major provision is currently up in the air, as Democrats call on Wolf to veto funding that would create an office dedicated to conducting audits of elections throughout the state.

The budget plan, which has yet to be signed by Wolf, includes $3.1 million in funding for a proposed Bureau of Election Audits within the state Auditor General’s office. This new office would be tasked with conducting “result-confirming” audits for each election in the state. 

The funding was sought by House Speaker Bryan Cutler, the chamber’s top-ranking Republican, who has sponsored identical standalone language to create the bureau. Cutler, speaking to City & State earlier this month, said that while the Pennsylvania Dept. of State has conducted risk-limiting audits of past elections, independent audits are needed to improve trust in election results.

“The idea that you've got the executive branch, who runs the election, also auditing the election – I don't think that that's necessarily a true check and balance,” Cutler said. “I think the best way to do it is to move it outside to the Auditor General, like we do with every other governmental program.”

The budget proposal sent to Wolf does not include the statutory language that would create the actual bureau, but a spokesperson for Cutler said that GOP leaders do not believe the language is necessary for the auditor general to use the new funds for election audit purposes.

“The Auditor General has the authority to perform his duties as he sees fit. He certainly has the authority to audit our election processes and systems, just as the previous occupant of his office did,” said Mike Straub, a spokesperson for Cutler.

Straub added that Cutler made clear during budget negotiations that the increased funding for Auditor General Timothy DeFoor’s office was for the creation of the Bureau of Election Audits. Straub said Cutler “made that clear to all parties … involved that the increase in the AG’s funding was specifically for this purpose.”

Democrats in the General Assembly are now calling for Wolf to use his line-item veto power to eliminate the proposed funding increase for DeFoor’s office. Legislative Democrats have been critical of GOP efforts to rewrite the state’s election laws, accusing them of sowing doubt in the results of the 2020 presidential election. Cutler, along with a number of other Republicans, signed a letter last year urging Congress to reject the state’s electoral votes. The letter was sent as former President Donald Trump made false claims about the election being fraudulent.

Bill Patton, a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, told City & State that the state auditor general “is neither authorized by law nor qualified in practice to engage in ‘election audits.’”

State Rep. Matt Bradford, the minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that the creation of the bureau is “just another example of Pennsylvania Republicans undermining confidence in the 2020 election and attempting to disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters.”

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, did not say whether the governor will veto the funding for the auditor general’s office. 

“There is no such office or authorizing language in the budget,” Kensinger wrote in an email. “We’re continuing to review the general appropriations bill and code bills before the governor takes action this week.”