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Pa. Republicans started their ‘forensic investigation’ of the 2020 election. It’s still unclear what that means.

Republican leaders have long faced public pressure from Trump and his supporters to conduct an investigation modeled off the months-long partisan review in Arizona.

Supporters of then- President Donald Trump gather outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg last December.
Supporters of then- President Donald Trump gather outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg last December.Read moreMichael M. Santiago / MCT

After months of demands from former President Donald Trump, Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers on Thursday jump-started what they’re calling a “forensic investigation” of the 2020 election — but they didn’t detail how the review will actually work.

State Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson), chairman of the committee leading the review, said it’s aimed at determining whether Pennsylvania election law can be improved.

“This investigation is not about overturning the results of any election, as some would suggest,” he said in remarks that opened an almost two-hour hearing. “That horse is out of the barn, as far as this investigation is concerned.”

But Dush’s stated objective closely resembles the rationale GOP lawmakers gave for previous probes, including one led by a special panel formed by the top Senate Republican specifically to review the election and recommend changes to state law.

For months, State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) — a pro-Trump firebrand and likely candidate for governorled the push for an investigation. But until late August, it was unclear whether GOP leaders would take up Trump’s cause. That’s when Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) came out in favor of a review and ousted Mastriano from overseeing the probe.

Corman faced public pressure from Trump and Republicans in his district to conduct an investigation modeled off the monthslong partisan review in Arizona. Elections experts, including current and former GOP officials, have said the Arizona review failed to follow best practices, chased conspiracy theories, and made inaccurate findings that were quickly debunked.

» READ MORE: The Pa. Senate leader resisted his pro-Trump wing for months. Now he wants a MAGA makeover.

Republicans have said, including at Thursday’s hearing, that their constituents are concerned about election integrity generally and the 2020 election in particular. But those concerns have been largely driven by Trump’s lies about voter fraud and election rigging, which Republicans across Pennsylvania have echoed.

There is no evidence to support Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes, multiple lawsuits challenging the election made no specific claims of fraud and were thrown out or otherwise failed, and county and state audits of the results found no issue with them.

Dush did not refer to the inquiry as an “audit” Thursday, but Corman has told pro-Trump interviewers that he is committed to completing a “full forensic audit.”

The scope of the inquiry remained unclear Thursday. Corman has said he wants to obtain voting records, machines, and other materials, in part to determine whether any ballots were cast in the name of dead people.

Dush gave little indication as to what his committee would actually be doing in the weeks and months ahead — or what would distinguish this review from inquiries completed earlier this year by three other legislative committees.

Then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar previously testified for three hours in January before the House State Government Committee about the same topic.

Why we’re not calling it an audit
The Inquirer is not currently referring to attempts by Pennsylvania Republicans to investigate the 2020 presidential election as an audit because there's no indication it would follow the best practices or the common understanding of an audit among nonpartisan experts. When asked by The Inquirer, lawmakers leading the effort have not explained how it would actually be run, including whether best practices would be followed; who would be involved, including what role partisan politicians would play; how the review would be documented; how election equipment and ballots would be secured; and what the scope of any review would be. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes. State and county audits affirmed the outcome, and there is no evidence of any significant fraud.

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Corman, said the inquiry will be funded by taxpayers, at least for now.

“I wouldn’t be able to speak to what might happen a few months down the road, depending on what we need to look at, what we need to do,” he said.

The three other committees, including two in the Senate, already held months of hearings on the 2020 election. The GOP-led legislature subsequently passed legislation that would have overhauled the election system. It was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

Nevertheless, Dush said his Intergovernmental Operations Committee — which traditionally does not handle election matters — is authorized to conduct its own review under the Pennsylvania Constitution and Senate rules.

State Sen. Anthony Williams, the top Democrat on the committee, said the “sham review” is “part of an ongoing national orchestrated attack on our electoral system.”

“This is an attack on one of our greatest freedoms. It’s an attack on our right to vote,” said Williams, of Philadelphia. “This entire tragic charade has been going on for 10 months now.”

» READ MORE: She lost big in the Philly suburbs. She went hunting for voter fraud. Now Kathy Barnette is a rising GOP star.

Dush last week invited Pennsylvania residents to fill out a form online sharing “any potential violations of election law or voting irregularities they have witnessed personally,” provided they “are willing to sign an affidavit and potentially testify under oath at a Senate hearing.”

The committee heard testimony Thursday from Stuart Ulsh, chairman of the board of commissioners in rural Fulton County.

Ulsh recounted receiving phone calls from Boockvar, then the state’s top elections official, on and around Election Day last November, including one in which she asked about the presidential vote count. It wasn’t clear when that call took place, and lawmakers didn’t ask him to clarify. Ulsh also said Boockvar asked whether Fulton County needed any help.

“To me, it was just another day,” he said. “On Election Day, it was just another day to me.”

Earlier this year, the county authorized a contractor to inspect its voting machines at the request of two GOP state senators. That initiative was funded by a nonprofit led by former Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell, who spread conspiracy theories about the election, the Arizona Mirror reported. The contractor, Wake TSI, later worked on the Arizona review.

» READ MORE: A Pa. town’s ‘election integrity law’ shows how Trump’s lies can hijack local politics and government

Under questioning from Democrats on Thursday, Ulsh said he could not recall who paid Wake TSI, other than that it wasn’t the county.

Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid decertified Fulton County’s voting machines in July, saying the third-party review violated state law and compromised the voting system. Neither the county nor the state can verify that Fulton’s voting machines “are safe to use in future elections,” she wrote the board in a letter. Allowing third-party access to voting equipment is generally considered a major security violation.

Fulton County filed a lawsuit against the state last month and asked a court to reverse the secretary’s decision. The suit is pending. The county says it followed proper procedures.

Degraffenreid declined Dush’s invitation to appear Thursday, citing the litigation.

The hearing came weeks after Corman removed Mastriano as chairman of the committee handling the review. Mastriano previously sent letters to three counties, including Philadelphia, demanding they turn over essentially all election-related equipment and materials.

The counties refused to cooperate, and Mastriano said he planned to issue subpoenas compelling the materials. Mastriano accused Corman of stifling his inquiry — a charge Corman denies — and the Senate leader tapped Dush, among the legislature’s most conservative members, to take over.