Republican-Led Election Reviews Take Shape In Pennsylvania And Wisconsin

Sep 23, 2021
Originally published on September 23, 2021 9:46 am

Republican state lawmakers continue to investigate the 2020 election nearly 11 months after voting concluded.

The probes come despite a lack of evidence of any widespread issues or fraud.

In Arizona, the end appears in sight for a widely discredited election review. The GOP-led state Senate plans to release findings from that effort Friday.

But similar reviews are only just beginning elsewhere. That includes in the swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states that President Biden won last year and that have Republican-led legislatures and Democratic governors.

In Pennsylvania, an investigation led by state Senate Republicans drew a legal challenge from Democrats after a GOP-led legislative committee last week issued a wide-ranging subpoena for the personal information of millions of voters.

Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, are backing three separate investigations.

In both states, leaders of the reviews visited the Arizona effort, and former President Donald Trump and his allies have encouraged them to examine the election.

What's happening in Pennsylvania

Republican state Sen. Cris Dush's committee last week issued a wide-ranging subpoena for the personal information of millions of Pennsylvania voters.
Matt Rourke / AP

Republican state leaders have said they want their investigation to be something all Pennsylvanians can have confidence in.

The state attorney general, a Democrat, told NPR this week that it's a "sham audit."

The Pennsylvania Senate's Intergovernmental Operations Committee voted along party lines last week to subpoena the state for 17 types of election records, including voters' addresses, partial Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers.

Republicans who support the request said it is to verify who those voters are, though multiple court rulings, previous state-mandated audits and election officials of both parties have all concluded that Pennsylvania's 2020 election results were accurate.

Also, a lot of the information that's sought is already public.

GOP state Sen. Cris Dush, who's spearheading this investigation, told reporters after his committee approved subpoenaing voter records that he would be sure the effort would be carried out "deliberatively" and "properly."

But Pennsylvania Senate Democrats have outlined privacy and chain of custody concerns with the subpoena request, in part because Republicans have not said who would be looking at those voter records and what would be done with them. Dush has said it's just GOP lawmakers and lawyers coming up with a list of vendors they might use to pore over these records.

The Democrats now have a lawsuit in state court to get this request overturned.

What's happening in Wisconsin

The investigation spurred by Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (left), seen here in 2019, is the most high profile of the state's three election inquiries.
Andy Manis / AP

The Wisconsin inquiries include a wide-ranging investigation backed by the state Assembly speaker, an attempted "forensic audit" by a Republican state lawmaker and a review by the state audit bureau, ordered by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The investigation spurred by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is the most high profile of the three inquiries. That taxpayer-funded effort has a roughly $700,000 budget and is being led by conservative former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who visited Arizona's controversial election review over the summer as well as a recent conference that election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell of MyPillow put on.

At the Wisconsin Republican convention this summer, Vos assured GOP voters that the Gableman investigation would dive into "shenanigans" that may have occurred during the election.

"We give you our word that we are doing everything we possibly can to uncover what occurred in 2020," Vos said at the time.

The speaker has received harsh criticism from Trump and his supporters, who have argued that Vos hasn't done enough to push election investigations in the state. After a private meeting with the former president this summer, Vos issued strong statements about the inquiry and increased its budget.

The review got off to a rocky start. Gableman sent an email to local election officials this month, requesting they retain 2020 election records, but the message was sent via a Gmail account associated with another person's name and was flagged as a security concern or junk mail by a number of clerks.

This week Gableman said that if necessary he will issue subpoenas to election officials who refuse to release information.

Another election inquiry led by a GOP lawmaker has hit roadblocks as well. That effort is led by Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the state Assembly elections committee and who also visited the Arizona election review. She calls her inquiry a "forensic audit"; however, she hasn't been able to obtain information from election officials after Vos refused to sign subpoenas she recently sent to clerks in two major counties.

Just before rejecting Brandtjen's subpoena, Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson criticized the document as "clearly a cut and paste job" from similar election-related legal moves from Republicans in other states. The subpoena requested items that don't exist or aren't part of required election processes in Wisconsin.

"It's clear to me that the Republicans are not interested in improving our election processes but rather desperate to find some type of smoking gun that doesn't exist," Christenson said. "I would encourage them to educate themselves on how elections work in their own state, rather than flying to Arizona or getting their intelligence from a guy who makes pillows."

The final election review in Wisconsin is being conducted by the state's nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, and was ordered by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

While Wisconsin Democrats have pushed back on all of the investigations, arguing they perpetuate misinformation about the election, they have said they have faith in the integrity of the audit bureau's work, which is set to be done this fall.

All the efforts come after Wisconsin completed a series of routine state election audits and a presidential recount in the state's two largest counties. None of those reviews has uncovered widespread fraud or wrongdoing. There have also been numerous Republican-backed lawsuits in the state, all of which have failed to result in findings of wrongdoing by election officials or voters.

Laurel White is a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. Sam Dunklau is a reporter for WITF in Harrisburg, Pa.

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It has been almost a year since the 2020 election, and still Republicans are investigating the outcome, even though there is no evidence of any widespread issues or fraud. In Arizona, the end appears in sight for a widely discredited election review. The GOP-led Senate plans to release findings from that effort Friday. Similar reviews are only just starting elsewhere. Joining us now, Laurel White of Wisconsin Public Radio and Sam Dunklau of WITF in Harrisburg, Pa. Good morning to you both.

LAUREL WHITE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SAM DUNKLAU, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So, Laurel, let's start with you. Tell us what's happening in Wisconsin.

WHITE: So we actually have three ongoing Republican-backed election reviews in Wisconsin right now that are looking at the 2020 election. One of them is from our state audit bureau, and it was ordered by the legislature earlier this year. And it's viewed by Democrats and folks aligned with them as the most legitimate of the three. Then there's an inquiry led by a Republican state lawmaker, and that one is hitting some roadblocks. Some subpoenas have been issued in that inquiry. They've been denied by county election officials up until this point, so kind of TBD on how that one's going to move forward. The most high-profile review, though, is the third one, and that's one called by the state Assembly speaker, paid for by the state. And it's really in response to a continued outcry from Republicans in Wisconsin that said the state wasn't doing enough to look into the election.

MARTIN: So three reviews - Sam, what you got going in Pennsylvania?

DUNKLAU: Well, not three reviews, Rachel. But here in Pennsylvania, we do have one review that is drawing a lot of scrutiny and now also some legal challenges. Here, the investigation is being led by state Senate Republicans. Just last week, a Senate committee issued a wide-ranging subpoena for personal information about voters that Democratic state leaders are pushing back against pretty strongly.

MARTIN: OK. So tell us more about this subpoena, Sam.

DUNKLAU: Yeah. So the state Senate has subpoenaed for 17 different types of election records. We're talking about not just voters' names, but also their addresses, partial Social Security numbers, even driver's license numbers. And Republicans say that this is to verify who these voters are. I should note, though, that multiple court rulings and previous state-mandated audits here in Pennsylvania and election officials of both parties have all concluded that the state's 2020 election results were accurate. And a lot of this information that the Senate Republicans are asking for is already public, but Democrats have outlined some privacy and chain of custody concerns with such a wide-ranging subpoena, in part because the GOP has not said who will be looking at these records and what will be done with them during the investigation or even afterwards.

Senate Democrats now have a lawsuit in state court to get this request overturned. And in general, Democrats have said that this is a bad-faith effort to undermine the integrity of elections here. State Senator Anthony Williams, who's from the Philadelphia area, took that characterization one step further during last week's subpoena meeting.


ANTHONY WILLIAMS: This is an attack on our country's greatest freedom. It's an attack on our right to vote.

MARTIN: So what kind of defense are Republicans giving?

DUNKLAU: From the beginning, Republican state Senate leaders have said that they want this investigation to be something that every Pennsylvanian can have some degree of confidence in. And here's Republican state Senator Cris Dush, who is spearheading the investigation here.

CRIS DUSH: The people are demanding action and demanding action quickly. But that being said, I have to make sure that it's thoughtful and deliberative.

DUNKLAU: Again, we don't know who exactly will have access to the subpoenaed records if they're handed over. Senator Dush has also said that it's just him and a group of GOP lawyers here coming up with a list of vendors that they might use to pore over these records. So it's tough to make the argument that this is something that all Pennsylvanians can take to heart when Republicans are really the only ones that are holding the reins.

MARTIN: Laurel, let's go back to you, talking about Wisconsin. What should we know about this particular review, the one that has been initiated by the Assembly speaker?

WHITE: Well, the state Assembly has hired a Republican and former state Supreme Court justice as an independent contractor to lead the review. The state has given him about $700,000 for the inquiry. That's taxpayer money. And remember, this is in addition to another taxpayer-funded investigation led by the state audit bureau.

The investigation has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start. An email went out to local clerks about maintaining records earlier this month, but it went out from a Gmail account that was under a different person's name, which raised some security concerns. So some have raised immediate questions about the competence here. The state Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, announced he was nominating the former Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, to lead this investigation in June at a state Republican convention. Here's what Gableman had to say at that event.


MICHAEL GABLEMAN: I know a lot of people in this room were very disappointed by how the November 2020 election was run, and you didn't just grumble about it and go back home and let bygones be bygones. You recognized that this one is where we draw the line.

WHITE: At the event, both Gableman and Vos were speaking about the 2020 election from the perspective of something went wrong. And, like Sam said in Pennsylvania, here in Wisconsin, there hasn't been any evidence of widespread problems.

MARTIN: Can we pull back for just a minute here? Can you two put this in context of broader Republican efforts to investigate last year's voting?

WHITE: So in Wisconsin, it's very tied in with efforts all across the country. Our Assembly speaker who called this investigation, he has gotten a lot of pushback from Wisconsin Republicans. He's actually gotten a lot of pressure from former President Donald Trump. He met with the former president on his private plane about this. The lead investigator went to Arizona, checked out the inquiry there. He also went to a conference - a recent conference put on by election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell of My Pillow. And kind of this interplay between Wisconsin and the national conversation was brought up recently by Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson.


GEORGE CHRISTENSON: I really would encourage them to educate themselves on how elections work in their own state, rather than flying to Arizona or getting their "intelligence," quote, from a guy that makes pillows.

DUNKLAU: So I definitely echo Laurel. A lot of similar efforts that are coming from the national level are happening here in Pennsylvania. Senator Dush, who's leading the investigation effort here, and other Republicans visited that Arizona review that you mentioned at the top, Rachel. And they've been hearing a lot from Trump and his allies to reinvestigate the 2020 election. In fact, lawyer Sidney Powell funded a group that took part in a reinvestigation of the election in one particular Pennsylvania county in the last couple of months. So in all, this segment of the GOP base has been clamoring for another election review to get their way and has been pushing for these reviews to somehow take shape.

MARTIN: Sam Dunklau of WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., and Laurel White of Wisconsin Public Radio. Thanks to you both.

DUNKLAU: Thank you.

WHITE: Thank you.

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