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. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Election 2020 Pennsylvania Review
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. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state Senate insist the undertaking has nothing to do with Donald Trump or trying to overturn last year’s presidential election.

HARRISBURG — Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state Senate prepared Wednesday to test how far they can go in pursuing what the GOP calls a “forensic investigation” of last year’s presidential election, as Democrats accused them of helping perpetuate the “big lie” of baseless claims that former President Donald Trump was cheated out of victory.

The Republican-controlled Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee held a party-line vote to issue a subpoena for detailed information on who voted in last year’s presidential election, including their driver’s license number and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Pennsylvania law prohibits the public release of a voter’s driver’s license number and Social Security number, and Democrats said they will go to court within days to contend that the demand violates the separation of powers and the authority of lawmakers.

Democrats also warned that sensitive information on voters could fall into the hands of Trump allies still intent on overturning the election.

Republicans also want to know by what method each person voted, whether in-person or by mail, absentee or provisional ballot, as well as information on when each registered voter last cast a ballot. The subpoena also seeks records of communication between state election officials and county election officials.

Republicans insist the undertaking has nothing to do with Trump or trying to overturn last year’s presidential election. 

During debate in the committee hearing, Democrats questioned who will have access to such sensitive information and why Republicans wanted it.

“Because there have been questions regarding the validity of people who have …. voted, whether or not they exist,” said the committee chairperson, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson. “Again, we’re not responding to proven allegations. We are investigating the allegations to determine whether or not they are factual.”

Asked about those allegations, Dush said he had heard of sworn affidavits of people visiting addresses “that were listed for a voter” and found only a condemned building. Dush could give no other details. 

Under questioning by Democrats, Dush suggested that the information will be given to a yet-to-be hired contractor so that lawmakers can “create legislation which will prevent that from happening in future elections.” 

Election 2020 Pennsylvania Review
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. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The state’s voter registration system contains all the data points mentioned in the subpoena, except for maybe Social Security numbers, or are available by link with the state Department of Transportation, said a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of State, which oversees how counties administer elections in Pennsylvania.

It’s not clear whether Wolf’s administration will provide the information or can be forced to produce it, even by court order. Some of the information being requested is already available to the public.

In a statement, Wolf, a Democrat, accused Republicans of undermining democracy, capitulating to Trump’s conspiracy theories and perpetuating lies that led to the insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Senate Republicans would rather cater to the fringe elements of their party who still are perpetuating the Big Lie rather than focus on issues that affect Pennsylvanians’ lives,” Wolf said.

The official rules of Pennsylvania’s Senate grants its committees broad authority to issue subpoenas to “any public agency” in the state, but it is a rarely used mechanism. 

Last year, Wolf’s administration — in an ongoing clash with Republican lawmakers over his handling of the pandemic — refused to comply with a subpoena, saying the state’s highest court “has recognized that a governor — and agents and officials acting under his authority — are exempt from subpoenas relating to the exercise of such authority.”

The idea of what Republicans call a “forensic investigation” or “audit” has been propelled by Trump’s most ardent supporters in battleground states where he lost. It has sown discord in the Senate Republican caucus and drawn criticism from establishment Republicans that Pennsylvania is following in the footsteps of Arizona.

There, a widely discredited and partisan election “audit” began in January with subpoenas that critics call a fruitless search for fraud to legitimize Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories that the election was rigged against him. It is still dragging on.

The taxpayer-funded undertaking in Pennsylvania could cost millions of dollars if big auditing firms are hired, and Republicans have yet to answer major questions about how it will work, who will work on it, and where.

Democrats have sharply criticized it, saying the Republicans’ “sham audit” or “fraudit” is a stunt to erode the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory and an extension of a national campaign to attack voting rights. Biden beat Trump in Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes, according to certified results.