Elections (Archived)

3 reasons why PA Democrats are suing their Republican colleagues

State Sen. Jay Costa

State Sen. Jay Costa Jay Costa legislative website

Pennsylvania Senate Democrats have officially filed a lawsuit challenging a Republican-led committee’s efforts to subpoena the voting information of nearly 9 million Pennsylvanians as part of a partisan probe into the state’s recent elections. 

Democrats filed the suit in Commonwealth Court after the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee last week voted to issue 17 subpoenas to the Pennsylvania Department of State seeking a range of information regarding the state’s 2020 presidential election and 2021 municipal primary. 

Republicans on the panel say the “forensic investigation” into the state’s elections will help policymakers update the state’s election laws and improve confidence in elections, while also helping to discern whether allegations of voter fraud have any merit. 

“There have been questions regarding the validity of people who have voted – whether or not they exist,” said Sen. Cris Dush, who chairs the panel leading the review. “If we have some errors within the voter registration system which allow for such activity, then we have a responsibility as a legislature to create legislation which will prevent that from happening in future elections.”

Democrats, however, view the investigation as a thinly-veiled political ploy to appease former President Donald Trump, who has called for state-level election “audits” as he pushes conspiracy theories about the 2020 general election. 

Democratic members of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee have framed the election investigation as a “gross misuse of taxpayer resources” and are now looking to block the recent subpoenas using three main arguments, which are outlined below. 

1. They say the legislature doesn’t have the authority to contest elections

Democrats on the committee argue that the GOP-led election investigation amounts to an effort to contest the results of the 2020 general election, which, they maintain, the legislative branch has no authority to do.

In their 178-page filing, the Democratic members of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee cite a provision in the state constitution that assigns the judicial branch with the “trial and determination of contested elections.” 

The filing refers to the Senate investigation as “a de facto untimely election contest, disguised as a legislative investigation, in a venue without jurisdiction,” and asks the court to declare the investigation to be unconstitutional.

2. They argue that lawmakers can’t conduct election audits

Democrats’ second argument centers around the idea that only the executive branch can conduct audits, in which they argue that auditing powers rest with the state Auditor General’s office.

In the filing, Democrats cite a provision in the Administrative Code that says it is “unlawful for any other administrative department, any independent administrative board or commission, or any departmental administrative or advisory board or commission, to expend any money appropriated to it by the General Assembly for any audit of its affairs.”

Democrats will have to make a compelling case to the court that the review is, in fact, an audit. They maintain that because the intent of the committee is to “gather large swaths of private voter information to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and fraud” that the review is indeed an audit. 

3. They say the election review would jeopardize protected information

Now comes the argument against allowing the committee – and potentially a third-party vendor – access to personal voter information. The committee subpoenaed the Department of State for access to the names, dates of birth, addresses, driver’s license numbers, and last four digits of Social Security numbers of all registered voters in the state, as well all voters who cast ballots in the 2020 general election. 

Democrats are asking the court to block the release of this information to the committee, arguing that “only a very limited number of officials review and retain the information that an applicant provides to register to vote.”

The filing continues: “The security and confidentiality of this system is so important that the

General Assembly included a criminal provision for the unauthorized access” to a database housing voter registration information. 

Republicans have maintained that they are not attempting to relitigate the 2020 presidential election, and that they are instead seeking to review irregularities and concerns to improve the state’s election laws for future elections. 

Additionally, they argue that much of the information subpoenaed is already publicly available, including names, addresses and voting activity. 

Sen. Kim Ward, the Senate Majority Leader, on Monday accused the Department of State of already providing third-party access to the SURE system, the state’s database of voter registration records, through the department’s Web API for online voter registration.

Ward said she agreed that asking for personal voter information is “intrusive” but said it’s also necessary to restore voter confidence in elections.

“I agree with the public that asking for a driver's license and the last four digits of a Social Security number is intrusive and overreaching,” Ward said. “However, these are not normal circumstances.”