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From the archives 2020

Pa. Republicans drop effort to create ‘election integrity’ panel with subpoena power

by Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

The resolution would have created a committee of five House lawmakers — three Republicans and two Democrats — to investigate and review the Nov. 3 election.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Republicans have dropped their plan to create an “election integrity” panel with subpoena power, an effort Democrats feared would lead to a “stealth attack” on voting.

The resolution would have created a committee of five House lawmakers — three Republicans and two Democrats — to investigate and review the Nov. 3 election. The group would have been empowered to subpoena “witnesses and documents” and initiate legal filings.

Following the measure’s introduction in late September, Democrats quickly raised concerns that the panel could be weaponized to impound ballots and delay Pennsylvania’s election results.

Republicans, meanwhile, defended the committee as a straight-forward oversight panel. While leadership planned to call up the resolution for a vote last week, the plan was delayed after a GOP representative tested positive for the coronavirus.

In an email to House Republicans on Friday, Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said he had removed the controversial resolution from the voting calendar “for the remainder of this legislative session” after talking with members.

“The common themes from those conversations show that you understand this select committee was being formed with the best of intentions, but the left and their media allies distorted the image of a bipartisan committee into a nefarious effort on our part to interfere with the upcoming election,” he said. “Nothing can be further from the truth. This caucus has maintained its commitment to the security and safety of our election with on-time results for months.”

Benninghoff said forming the committee “is the right policy,” but that now is the “wrong time to run the proposal.”

The resolution was introduced by Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), who told members of the House State Government Committee the intent of the measure was to conduct investigations and recommend improvements following the Nov. 3 election.

Still, the resolution’s language said the committee’s work would be done in part to “improve the conduct of” the upcoming election. Everett declined to amend the resolution during a committee hearing in response to Democrats’ concerns, but said he would consider doing so when the measure reached the House floor.

Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) was among the lawmakers who believed the panel could be used to subpoena election officials and intentionally create a delay in certifying the vote.

“I hope this is now dead and buried forever,” Boyle said Friday. “If enacted the proposal would have a chilling effect on democracy.”

Bill Patton, a spokesperson for House Democrats, called the resolution “another dead end for a Republican caucus that ran out of new ideas long ago.”

But it wasn’t only Democrats who had concerns about the measure. As of Thursday, the resolution had lost support from about a dozen Republicans, a source told Spotlight PA.

Earlier Friday, Rep. Valerie Gaydos (R., Allegheny) said in a statement that she would oppose the resolution.

“I have urged our House Republican leadership team to permanently table this legislation immediately,” she said. “I strongly support free and fair elections and the democratic process, but adamantly oppose legislation which is unclear and undefined.”

Rep. Todd Polinchock (R., Bucks) told Spotlight PA he opposed advancing the resolution so close to the election.

“Even though the resolution does not do what people fear, I did not see the need in moving it forward at this time and had some reservations about it,” he said.

With Pennsylvania expected to be a pivotal state in the presidential election, the GOP-led legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf are locked in a stalemate over making additional election administration changes ahead of Nov. 3.

The House in September approved a bill that would give counties time before Election Day to begin processing ballots — a provision officials say is a must-have as they brace for a deluge of mail-in and absentee ballots.

But the legislation would also ban satellite drop boxes and allow partisan poll watchers to work anywhere in the state, two priorities for President Donald Trump.

In the email Friday, Benninghoff championed the bill and said it is a “reflection both of our priority of having safe, secure, and reliable results on election day” and of some concerns highlighted by the Pennsylvania Department of State.

“Our caucus has done the yeoman’s work in taking the lead on making needed improvements in advance of our upcoming election,” he said. “In short, the House Republican Caucus did its job in passing — with bipartisan support — this important legislation.”

Only four Democrats voted in favor of the bill, which Wolf has vowed to veto in its current form.

Benninghoff also criticized recent state Supreme Court rulings that granted “many of [Wolf and the Democrats’] asks.” That includes directing counties to accept ballots that arrive by the Friday after Election Day as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3, or if the postmark is absent or illegible unless “a preponderance of evidence” shows a ballot was mailed too late.

Senate Republicans are appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court with the support of House GOP leadership.

“We continue to litigate these matters as we believe the over-reach involvement here usurps the legislature’s constitutionally-granted role in determining the time, place, and manner of elections,” Benninghoff said.

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