State GOP lawmakers push for new election-auditing office

Marc Levy
The Associated Press
FILE - In this May 26, 2021 file photo House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Republicans and Democrats are feuding over whether Pennsylvania's roughly $40 billion budget package negotiated behind closed doors and passed within hours of becoming public includes money for the state auditor general to begin auditing election results. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

HARRISBURG — Republicans and Democrats are feuding over whether Pennsylvania’s roughly $40 billion budget package negotiated behind closed doors and passed within hours of becoming public includes money for the state auditor general to begin auditing election results.

The idea to create an election-auditing bureau under the independently elected auditor general gained currency in the Republican-controlled Legislature amid former President Donald Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories about Democrats stealing the November election from him.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, maintains that budget legislation carries $3.1 million for Auditor General Tim DeFoor, a Republican, to create a bureau of election audits with broad authority to subpoena materials and review votes counted, ballots, ballot envelopes, election machine logs, pre-election machine tests and more.

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Objection: Gov. Tom Wolf and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature say there was no agreement to fund an election-auditing bureau in budget legislation on Wolf’s desk, and there is nothing in the legislation requiring funding for such a bureau.

Wolf’s office said Tuesday the subject of election-audit funding was raised during negotiations and the administration continually objected.

The fight over Pennsylvania’s election law comes as supporters of Trump who allege fraud during the 2020 election have pushed for audits and reviews of ballots in other political battlegrounds, spurred on by Trump’s baseless claims about election fraud.

Separate election legislation that authorizes the auditor general to begin auditing elections was written unilaterally and passed by Republican lawmakers and is headed for a veto by Wolf. Every Democratic lawmaker, except one, voted against it.

Authority: Cutler’s office said DeFoor has the authority to independently create an election-auditing bureau, even if Wolf follows through on his threat to veto the GOP’s election bill.

“We expect him to create that bureau with that money,” Cutler’s spokesperson Michael Straub said. “If he decides that it takes legislation to create the bureau, then we’ll work with him to get that done.”

Democratic lawmakers contend that DeFoor has no such authority, and are urging Wolf to use his line-item veto authority to eliminate any funding for an election-auditing bureau.

DeFoor’s office, however, said Tuesday that it does not have the authority under state law to audit an election and that it has made that stance plain to lawmakers.

Counties run elections and state law limits the auditor general’s auditing of counties to fiscal matters, such as whether a county is forwarding tax revenue that it collects on the state’s behalf, DeFoor’s spokesperson April Hutcheson said.

Funding: Budget legislation on Wolf’s desk carries a $5.7 million total funding increase, or 13%, for the Department of the Auditor General.

But DeFoor’s office had requested that $5.7 million increase in hopes of using the money to bring its technology needs up to date and to recruit new staff after years of cuts have left it with the same amount of money that it received in 1992, Hutcheson said.

“That is what it would take to get us solvent again,” Hutcheson said.

Existing law: Critics say an election-auditing bureau is duplicative, given the legal requirements for each county and the state to review election results for accuracy and investigate any discrepancies.

Under Pennsylvania election law, each county election board is bipartisan and must review 2% of ballots cast in each election to help ensure the accuracy of the count before it certifies a result.

Counties must investigate and correct any errors that emerge when election workers process ballots. County election boards make decisions by a majority vote, decisions that can be appealed or contested in court.

Meanwhile, Wolf’s administration piloted a statewide risk-limiting audit last year, and agreed in a 2016 federal court settlement to institute some type of enhanced statewide audit by November 2022.

Despite Trump’s continued efforts to overturn the election, no county election board, prosecutor or state official in Pennsylvania has raised a concern over any sort of widespread election fraud in November’s election.

Regardless, in December, Cutler and 63 other Republican lawmakers issued a statement urging members of Congress to block Pennsylvania’s electoral votes from being cast for Democrat Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election.

Republican lawmakers still have done little to dispute Trump’s unfounded tales of election fraud and irregularities. Some have amplified those tales while distorting the actions of state election officials and judges as illegal or unconstitutional and describing mail-in ballots cast by legal, eligible voters as “illegal ballots.”