HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The separation of powers, the privacy of voters and what former President Donald Trump wants dominated arguments in a Pennsylvania court Wednesday as Democrats seek to block a subpoena to state election officials in what Republicans call a “forensic investigation” of last year’s presidential election.
A five-judge panel of the statewide Commonwealth Court heard more than two hours of arguments in a case being decided against the backdrop of Trump’s baseless claims that he was cheated out of victory in Pennsylvania and other battleground states.
Challengers, including Senate Democrats and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, also a Democrat, have sought to block the subpoena issued by a Republican-controlled state Senate committee.
It is an abuse of legislative power, serves no legitimate legislative purpose and stems from Trump’s efforts to undermine trust in the results of the 2020 presidential election, they say.
Issued in September, the subpoena seeks detailed election records, much of it already public, some information about voters that is protected by privacy laws and some information about election systems that is barred from public disclosure by federal law, Shapiro’s office wrote.
Much of Wednesday’s debate in court revolved around whether the Senate’s inquiry was legitimate, and whether Republican senators and a contractor have a right to information protected by privacy laws, namely the partial Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers of 9 million voters.
“There’s no reason this committee needs it, other than to say they are conducting a ‘forensic audit,’” Michael Fischer, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, told the judges.
Cliff Levine, a lawyer for Senate Democrats, told judges that demanding the private information of 9 million voters is a way to “please” Trump.
A lawyer for Senate Republicans insisted that lawmakers unquestionably have a legitimate interest in getting the information to improve election law, regardless of the backdrop of Trump trying to get allies in battleground states to turn up evidence of election fraud.
“The fact that there’s noise floating around out there shouldn’t concern the court,” lawyer Matt Haverstick said.
Two judges — both Republicans — questioned whether the court should even be regulating a legislative subpoena.
Judge Anne E. Covey told Fischer that his office wants the court to tell a co-equal branch “how they should conduct themselves and how they should operate.”
Still, most judges seemed to agree with plaintiffs that Republicans must explain how they would adequately protect the private information of voters.
“Shouldn’t we know that?” Judge Michael H. Wojcik asked Haverstick.
Trump and his allies have applied ongoing pressure in those battleground states where he lost to Democrat Joe Biden to investigate ballots, voting machines and voter rolls for evidence to support their baseless claims about election fraud.
Committees in both the Senate and House, both controlled by Republicans, have already held numerous hearings on the election, listened to hours of testimony and produced reports and legislation on that very topic.
Critics say the subpoena is duplicative, given the required audits already carried out by counties and the state, and the Republicans’ “investigation” does not resemble any sort of post-election audit that is accepted by the election-administration community.
Democrats say it is part of a national campaign to take away voting rights and undermine both democracy and elections, while the U.S. Department of Justice has said it is monitoring developments in Pennsylvania and other states “regarding post-election investigations of the 2020 general election.”
The undertaking has divided Republican senators, and been secretive and partisan.
To do the work, Republicans hired a small firm with hardly any track record and no experience in elections on a no-bid contract without issuing a public request for proposals.
Last year, the conservative online publication American Greatness published an editorial by the firm’s president claiming that tech giants are “collaborating with news agencies, students, academia, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party to restrict speech.”
The man who selected the firm, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, advocated for overturning Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania, at one point saying “there was no election. There was a scam.”
In September, Dush said obtaining the detailed voter information was necessary to investigate unproven allegations that voters were registered as living at a condemned building. Dush has released no details about the allegations.
Months earlier, Dush visited the widely criticized and partisan election review being carried out by Senate Republicans in Arizona, and said he wanted to bring that model to Pennsylvania.
Unlike Arizona, the subpoena in Pennsylvania stops short of requesting ballots and voting machines.
However, Dush on Friday sent a letter requesting the digital data from the election computers and hardware used in the 2020 election by Fulton County, a sparsely populated and heavily Republican county that used Dominion Voting Systems equipment.
Dominion has been at the center of some of the most fevered and baseless conspiracy theories spread by Trump and his supporters. In Arizona, Senate Republicans handed Dominion equipment from Maricopa County over to its contractor.
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