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Pa. Senate election probe contract doesn’t say if the public will see the results, among other things

  • Sam Dunklau
Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson), who took over and renewed the election investigation in August 2021 after it was inactive for months, said any legislative fixes to the voter registration system will come after the inquiry ends.

 Kalim A. Bhatti / The Inquirer

Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson), who took over and renewed the election investigation in August 2021 after it was inactive for months, said any legislative fixes to the voter registration system will come after the inquiry ends.

This story has been updated to include comments from Sen. Cris Dush’s office.

(Harrisburg) — Multiple federal investigations as well as court rulings and state-mandated audits of ballots from every Pennsylvania county have turned up no evidence of election problems that were out of the ordinary. The Department of State has said the last several election cycles ran smoothly.

Even so, Pa. Senate Republicans are paying over a quarter million dollars in taxpayer money to an Iowa-based company, Envoy Sage LLC, to investigate those elections.

Details of the agreement between the two are now public. Democratic senators as well as voter advocates say the document raises more questions than it answers.

“This is not something that [is] being done on behalf of the Senate, and the majority is really steering into some dangerous waters on this,” Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) said.

The partially-redacted document spells out what Envoy Sage will do for the Republican caucus by at least the end of May — and how much it’s being paid for each task. Democrats, who are on the committee conducting the elections probe, are not party to or mentioned in the agreement.

For instance, the company will have to look at 700 emails about election concerns and 100 other allegations Pennsylvanians submitted to the Senate Intergovernmental Operations committee. It’ll also have to review private voter data that has not been released pending a court challenge, and help lawmakers produce legislation based on its findings.

Sen. Cris Dush (R-Cameron) said, who chairs the Intergovernmental Operations committee, in an interview last week that Envoy Sage and GOP lawmakers are now “vetting” those allegations.

Pennsylvanians were invited last September to submit stories about “problems they have personally experienced with the state’s election system,” and had to be “comfortable signing an affidavit and potentially testifying under oath.”

Former President Donald Trump’s campaign relied in part on affidavits when it alleged widespread fraud in states like Michigan and Georgia last year.

Investigations determined no such fraud occurred. Courts in both states found witnesses couldn’t back up their claims with direct evidence. And without that kind of evidence, affidavits don’t carry much legal weight — though someone can get in trouble if found to have lied on one.

Dush said some of those submissions have already proven unreliable — though he refused to disclose details.

“We’ve had some that we’ve pretty much discounted right off the bat. It’s my uncle’s brother’s friend type of thing,” he said.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Chairman of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, speaks during a hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

Dush also did not share any details about the team’s vetting process, and was non-committal about whether any of the allegations would be shared with the public.

“We won’t be publicizing anything that could possibly be deemed to be fallacious, but [for] the things that have some veracity, we’ll do some additional digging and if it’s worthy of being presented before the committee, we’ll have it presented before the committee so people can examine for themselves,” Dush said.

Democratic senators and groups like the League of Women voters said the Envoy Sage contract doesn’t make clear how the investigation will work. Both are suing to stop the probe in Commonwealth Court. Oral arguments before the mostly-Republican panel are set for Dec. 15.

“The questions that we have…include, ‘Who will be getting the information generated by the report, what kind of information they’re looking for, [and] what the focus is in terms of how they’re looking at voter data?’” said Susan Gobreski, League of Women Voters Board director for government policy.

Per the contract, Envoy Sage only has to turn over its findings to Senate Republicans, so it’s not clear if anyone else will get to see the results.

“How does that now change how this can unfold? It seems to me that fact changes this pretty dramatically,” Santarsiero said.

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) added it will be difficult for his party or members of the public to hold Envoy Sage accountable. He said it’s particularly worrying that the company will potentially have access to partial Social Security and driver’s license numbers for millions of voters if Senate Republicans beat back the court challenge.

“We’re very much concerned that there are not provisions that deal with…a breach of that contract, particularly as it relates to the protection of this [voter] data,” Costa said.

According to the contract, Senate Republicans are the only people who can take action against Envoy Sage if they don’t uphold their end of the bargain.

“They have designed it to ensure it’ll be a unilateral process,” Costa said. “They’re going to shove down our throats and the throats of the public this audit process that is misguided, unnecessary and quite frankly unlawful.”

A group of lawyers lead by Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed a brief in the case Tuesday arguing Envoy Sage is led by a partisan actor and can’t safely conduct an election review.

The GOP has claimed the firm is right for the job because it has no political affiliations.

But the brief argues the company hasn’t made clear whether it has secure servers or data protection protocols. It also points to a campaign finance report that appears to show Envoy Sage president, Steven Lahr, has donated to Republican candidates in the past and expressed critical views of Democrats, tech companies and media in a piece he wrote for a conservative website.

Shapiro and others said because of that, Envoy Sage can’t be trusted to be the “non-partisan” reviewer the Senate GOP claims it is, nor can it safely store private data on millions of voters.

Dush’s office pushed back on the brief in a statement late Wednesday, reiterating GOP claims that Envoy Sage has conducted investigations “for decades,” and that Lahr’s comments online have been “purposely twisted.”

Lahr’s piece included direct characterizations such as “[a]fter President Trump was elected, tech giants, in close collaboration with many Democrats, launched an information war, wielding their version of truth.”

Dush said Envoy Sage has worked with Democratic and Republican administrations and its track record is “impeccable.”

A spokesman said Thursday that the office is working to answer a request for the company’s detailed project history.

Republican legislators such as Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) and conservative radio personalities like Wendy Bell have encouraged the Senate to conduct what they call a forensic audit. That kind of probe was carried out in Arizona, and experts said it was deeply flawed and could not be taken seriously.

Dush, Corman and others have said the investigation in Pennsylvania is not about overturning Trump’s loss in November. Yet many Trump supporters believe that should happen.

A Politico and Morning Consult poll from October showed 61 percent of voters who support Trump believe the election results should be overturned. Nearly the same number of Republicans hold that view, according to the poll.

As early as July 2020, Trump began making false claims that the election would be rigged or stolen. After the election, claims to that effect failed multiple times in courts across the country. But the election-fraud lie received support from Republican legislators in Pennsylvania, many of whom signed letters asking Congress to either dispute Pennsylvania’s election results or delay certifying them — despite no evidence to support election-fraud claims.

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack

As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.

Sen. Dush (R-Cameron), as a member of the state House, signed a letter asking Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s 2020 electoral college vote –despite no evidence calling those results into question.

Sen. Corman (R-Centre) supported former President Donald Trump’s election-fraud lie by signing a letter urging members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for Joe Biden.

In October, Corman said he accepts Biden’s victory.

These actions supported the election-fraud lie, which led to the attack on the Capitol.

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