News & Politics

Costa: ‘Enough is enough’ with state Senate election investigation

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa speaks at a February press conference

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa speaks at a February press conference Commonwealth Media Services

A state Senate committee investigating Pennsylvania’s elections sparked controversy during a March 31 hearing on ballot drop boxes when the committee’s Republican chairman refused to have witnesses testify under oath. 

Instead, state Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee Chairman Cris Dush, without explanation, had panelists speak on election-related matters without being sworn in, despite requests from Democrats to do so. That prompted Democrats, led by Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, who is also on the committee, to leave the meeting in protest, although the hearing, which included testimony regarding a video from Lehigh County that allegedly depicts a person stuffing ballots into a county drop box, continued. Following the hearing, Dush criticized the move, calling it “dramatic” and “disrespectful” to the testifiers. “It is deceptive for anyone to imply that the testimony given today by county election officials and local leaders was anything other than authentic and true,” Dush said in a statement. “The decision by Democratic committee members to abruptly leave today’s hearing was not only unproductive and dramatic, but it was also incredibly disrespectful to the testifiers who want nothing more than to help this committee work towards ensuring election integrity.”

City & State spoke with Costa on GOP efforts to investigate the state’s recent elections, despite no evidence surfacing of improprieties, why Democrats left the hearing in protest, and what efforts to examine Pennsylvania elections should look like. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

What is the status of the lawsuit challenging the state Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee’s investigation into the state’s recent elections?

As I understand the lawsuit at this juncture, we’re still waiting for the judge to determine whether or not she has jurisdiction over the allegations or concerns that we’ve raised in our lawsuit. So we’re waiting. The matter has been argued and briefed, and I believe at this juncture we’re still waiting for a decision from – I think it’s Judge (Mary Hannah) Leavitt – about how we proceed next – whether we even proceed at all. 

Why did Democrats choose to leave the March 31 meeting?

This is just a continuation, in our view, of this effort to undermine the integrity of our election and electoral process and it all ties back to the 2020 Big Lie theory that Republicans – and particularly the chairman of this committee, and other members of this committee – continue to perpetuate. I have serious questions about why they didn’t want to swear witnesses in, when, as I mentioned at the hearing, every single person who appeared before the Appropriations Committee (for recent state budget hearings) to testify was sworn in. The last meeting we had with the Fulton County Commissioner; he was sworn in. This is just a waste of money – a waste of time – to be able to perpetuate this Big Lie theory that we need to move on from.

What type of message does not swearing in those panelists send to Pennsylvanians?

I think it sends a message that there is a level of (concern about the) veracity of the witness. And I think he probably was not in a position to say whether or not the person was being truthful or not. That’s what it told me. That’s what it should tell: That he too questions whether or not, possibly, the witness would be able to testify truthfully.

What are your thoughts on how Sen. Dush has handled election-related hearings so far? 

I think he’s done a poor job of handling election matters. He’s not been inclusive. More importantly, he has unilaterally done things under the guise of the committee, but outside the scope of any authority that committee has given him as chairperson. He does not run a unilateral committee. He’s not the only member of that committee.

Will Democrats be attending future meetings held by the committee?

It’s hard to say right now. I mean, we’ve certainly participated in committee meetings, provided that we have advance notice for what they are and have the ability to bring folks to participate in the meeting – we weren’t permitted to bring any witnesses to testify at this hearing yesterday, and it was something that was hastily put together. It’s a committee made up of both parties. While one party has a majority, they have an obligation to work with the other side of the aisle as well.

What would an ideal way of examining the state’s elections and election-related laws look like in your eyes? How do you think this process should be run?

Well, I think we've already had examples of that. The committee that (State Senate President Jake) Corman put together – the integrity committee – looked at all these issues, and it was a bipartisan committee. I appointed my members, he appointed members and they came out with a report and they gave recommendations. That was one way. The Election Law Advisory board or committee that came out of Act 12 of 2020 – county elected officials, county election directors, legislators all participated in this committee process, and they came out with a report. Then you have our State Government Committees, at least in the Senate State Government Committee, they too participated and came out with recommendations – a series of things that needed to be done. To me, those are the vehicles that we should be utilizing to examine this stuff. But if you’re looking to a particular committee, it should be the State Government Committee that we believe, historically and to this day, has subject matter jurisdiction over election matters, not the Intergovernmental Operations Committee. 

City & State has reached out to a spokesperson for Sen. Cris Dush to conduct an interview with Dush, but has not received a response at press time.