Pennsylvania Republicans moved Wednesday to seek personal information on every voter in the state as part of a brewing partisan review of the 2020 election results, rubber-stamping more than a dozen subpoenas for driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers.
The expansive request for personal information, directed at Pennsylvania’s Department of State and approved in a vote by Republicans on a state Senate subcommittee, is the first major step of the election inquiry. The move adds Pennsylvania to a growing list of states that have embarked on partisan-led reviews of the 2020 election, including a widely criticized attempt to undermine the outcome in Arizona’s largest county.
Democrats in the state Senate pledged to fight the subpoenas in court, saying at a news conference after the vote Wednesday that the requests for identifiable personal information were an overreach, lacked authority and potentially violated federal laws protecting voter privacy.
“Senate Democrats, going forward, intend to take legal action against this gross abuse of power by filing a lawsuit, challenging in the courts, and to ask the courts to declare the Senate Republicans’ actions in violation of separation of power, as well as declaring that they had no authority to issue these subpoenas,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, the minority leader.
Democrats control several of the top offices in Pennsylvania — including those of governor, attorney general and secretary of state — and it was not immediately clear what legal basis they might have to challenge the subpoenas. Nor was it clear how the transfer of information would begin to take place, if it does proceed, or which people or entities involved in the review would control the information. While the review will be funded by taxpayers, its potential cost has yet to be revealed.
The Department of State did not respond to requests for comment or issue a statement on the subpoenas.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, vowed to fight the subpoenas as well.
“There are legal consequences to turning over people’s private, personal information without their permission,” Shapiro said in an interview. “My office will not allow that to happen. And people can be assured that we will take whatever legal action necessary to protect their private personal information from this charade.”
The subpoenas, 17 in all, also included a request for communications between state and county election officials. They did not include requests for election machines or equipment.
But election experts still expressed worries about the amount of personal information being requested and the security risks, both to voters and to the electoral process, that could come with such a transfer of information. Such risks have grown increasingly common in partisan election reviews around the country.
“That’s a really bad idea to have private information floating around in a Senate caucus,” said Marian K. Schneider, an elections lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “And it’s really not clear how the data is going to be used, who’s going to be looking at it, who can have access, how it’s going to be secured. And it’s unclear to me why they even need the personally identifying information.”
Republicans in several states have pursued similar reviews — misleadingly labeled “audits” to suggest an authoritative nonpartisan investigation — in the name of protecting “election integrity.” The reviews have often centered on baseless claims and debunked conspiracy theories about the presidential contest, spurred in part by the falsehoods promoted by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
President Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes, and the results have been reaffirmed by the state’s Department of State.
“The entirety of our proceedings today, issuing subpoenas, is based upon such a noncredible foundation,” said Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat who represents an area near Philadelphia. He added that it was “very troubling and, in fact, leads us to darker days in this country, such as when hearings like these, during the McCarthy era, were held, where voices were silenced and liberties were denied, being bullied by the power of the government.”
State Sen. Jake Corman, the top Republican in the chamber, who approved the review last month, portrayed the investigation as merely trying to inform future legislation and lashed back at Democrats, asking what they were “scared of.”
“All we’re doing is seeking facts, seeking information, so that we can make better public policy,” Corman said.
When questioned by Democrats about why voters’ Social Security and driver’s license information was necessary for the investigation, state Sen. Cris Dush, who is leading the review as chair of the Governmental Operations Committee, brought up unspecific and unfounded claims that ineligible voters had cast ballots in the Pennsylvania election.
“Because there have been questions regarding the validity of people who have voted, whether or not they exist,” Dush said. “Again, we’re not responding to proven allegations, we are investigating the allegations to determine whether or not they are factual.”
He continued: “If we have the sum errors within the voter registration system which allow for such activity, then we have a responsibility as a legislature to create legislation which will prevent that from happening in future elections.”
A chief concern of Democrats, beyond the subpoenas, was which people or companies might gain access to the stockpile of personal information of the nearly 7 million Pennsylvanians who cast a ballot in the 2020 election.
State Sen. Steven Santarsiero, a Democrat from the Philadelphia suburbs, pressed Dush on his selection process. Santarsiero asked specifically whether any of the vendors the Republicans are considering have ties to Sidney Powell, the lawyer who has popularized many false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
“The answer to that is I really don’t know, because it is not something that is relevant to my determination,” Dush responded.
“So it’s possible, then?” Santarsiero asked.
“It is absolutely possible,” Dush said.