What Is PA’s GOP House Up To With Its Plans For A Sketchy Election Probe Panel?

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, City skyline and State Capitol shot at dusk from Susquehanna River, PA. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
October 2, 2020 2:43 p.m.

Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers aim to create a GOP-controlled select committee that would have the authority — including subpoena power — to investigate the 2020 election before it is even over.

Their plans for a state House floor vote Thursday to formally create the committee were delayed after a GOP member tested positive for COVID-19. It’s likely that chamber will approve the resolution that will create the committee later this month.

To justify its creation, Republicans point to recent court decisions, and to the actions of Democratic state officials, that they say have created a new election environment that warrants legislative inquiry now — even as they insist that the goal is a post-election report.

Democrats and voter advocates, however, have serious concerns that the committee is actually aimed at further sowing doubts about the election, after President Trump has already lobbed baseless allegations about fraud in mail-in voting. They warn that the probe could inject more confusion into a chaotic election while ballots are still being cast or counted. And there is at least some worry that the committee is part of a larger plot to hand Trump an election he didn’t really win — a claim the resolution’s supporters deny.

“They are using the mechanisms of government to create sham hearings, to create sham processes, to justify their stealing of the election,” Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat who serves on the committee that advanced the resolution Wednesday, told TPM. “And I hate to use terms that feel hyperbolic, but there’s no other way to describe what’s happening here.”

The resolution would create a select House committee — made up of three Republicans and two Democrats — that could, via subpoena, demand testimony and documents from election officials, candidates, voters, and anyone else tangentially connected to the election.

Voting rights groups oppose the resolution in part because they fear that subpoenaing election officials while voting is already underway will further hinder their ability to administer an already challenging election.

At a committee hearing on the resolution Wednesday, its sponsor Rep. Garth Everett (R) stressed that the intention of the select committee was to take a retroactive look at the 2020 election once it was over.

But that assurance seemed at odds with the resolution text itself, which says that the committee could propose changes “before or after” the 2020 election, along with other nods to the possibility that the investigation will be started while the election is still happening.

Everett at first seemed open to a Democratic request that he change the text to make clear that any investigation would wait until after the 2020 results were certified. But then a staffer whispered in his ear, and he backtracked, saying the text would stay as it is.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R), confirmed that the select committee would be allowed to begin investigating as soon as the resolution was approved on the House floor.

“There might be the need to gather some documents or information about something that’s going on right now,” Gottesman told TPM. “So yes, they should start immediately. But it’s not meant to or designed to interfere in the processes.”

There are other reasons Democrats are suspicious of the plan. For one, an advisory committee — made up of four Republicans and four Democrats — had already been created for assessing election reforms that were passed in 2019 and earlier this year.

Secondly, the push to create this new committee came about very quickly — Democrats say they only learned about the resolution on Tuesday — and whatever it does will have to happen very quickly, as there are only a handful of legislative days left on the statehouse’s calendar.

“Why are we rushing? Why didn’t the intent match the words? Why aren’t we using a current vehicle that we already have? Why is it happening in a purely partisan way?” Rep. Jared Solomon, another Democrat on Everett’s committee, told TPM.

Asked why an additional committee was needed and why it was being put together so quickly, Gottesman pointed to the recent court decisions, including a recent state Supreme Court decision, which he said created “an election law that didn’t exist in statute.”

The state Supreme Court decision — which has been partially appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Pennsylvania’s GOP legislative leaders — extended the deadline by which mailed-in ballots must be received to three days after the election, while upholding the use of ballot dropboxes.

“This is a concern of expanding the law, as it was never intended intended to be, by activist courts and its ramifications on a very significant election and our elections going forward,” Gottesman said.

Gottesman also dismissed a recent report in the Atlantic that is driving some of the Democratic anxiety about the committee. The report alleges that the Trump campaign and Pennsylvania GOP leaders had been looking at an arcane procedure that could allow a state legislature to choose its state’s Electoral College electors if an election remains contested after Dec. 8.

Kenyatta sees the select committee as playing a role in that purported scheme, if it is able to gin up false fraud accusations that delay certification of the election and give Republicans cover to chose their own electors.

Gottesman, however, said there had been “no discussion” among the Republican legislative caucus of that option, and suggested that for such a scheme to work, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would have to approve a change to state law.

With the COVID-19 case disrupting the Thursday vote plans, the next day the House is scheduled to be in session is Oct. 19 — and there are just four days total currently scheduled for legislative activity this year. But it is possible that members could be called back by House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R) before Oct. 19 to vote on the resolution.

“It’s in the Speaker’s hands,” Solomon said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Mike Turzai was the speaker of the Pennsylvania House. Turzai resigned earlier this year. The speaker is Bryan Cutler.

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