An appeals court in Pennsylvania says it won’t compel the state’s Department of State to release personal voter information to state Senate Republicans for their ongoing investigation into the 2020 election, although the court left the door open for the probe to continue by saying that the lawmakers have the power to enforce a subpoena.
In its long-running probe into the 2020 election, the GOP-led Pennsylvania Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee issued a subpoena in September 2021 (pdf) requesting that the Department of State release guidelines, communications, and a variety of voter information.
Pennsylvania Democrat senators sued to block enforcement of the subpoena, prompting a countersuit by Republicans demanding that the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court force compliance with the subpoena.
The court ruled on Feb. 9 not to enforce the subpoena and compel the Department of State to provide the committee with the personal information of voters.
In an opinion (pdf), President Judge Emerita Mary Hannah Leavitt denied the Republican-led committee’s petition to force compliance with their subpoena.
At the same time, Leavitt wrote that the subpoena can be enforced by the Legislature itself and that its constitutional power to do so doesn’t need any “augmentation in the form of a common law writ of mandamus.”
“The Senate Committee has express constitutional authority to enforce its subpoena,” she wrote. “It may enforce its subpoena in accordance with the contempt statutes.”
A writ of mandamus is a court order compelling the performance of a public duty.
It’s unclear what effect the court’s decision will have on the Republican-led committee’s election review, which has been largely dormant for the past year as the dispute over the subpoena has gone through the court process.
The Election Probe
Inspired by former President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud and calls for a “forensic audit,” Pennsylvania Senate Republicans launched their probe in 2021.
“For nearly a year, our Commonwealth has been tied in knots by doubts surrounding recent elections,” Pennsylvania state Sen. Jake Corman said in an Aug. 23, 2021, statement calling for an investigation.
“No matter whether you supported Donald Trump or Joe Biden in the 2020 election, everyone should have confidence in the results of that election. That is the only way our system works. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Pennsylvania.”
Corman said the goal of the probe wasn’t to do a rerun of the election or carry out a recount, but to find flaws in the system “that could be exploited by bad actors” and recommend systemic fixes.
“Our goal should be to proceed carefully, thoughtfully and transparently,” Corman continued. “We need to follow the evidence wherever it leads and get real results to make our election system stronger and more secure. That is the only way we can restore faith in our voting process and give all Pennsylvanians the peace of mind to know that future elections will be both fair and honest.”
On Sept. 15, 2021, the committee issued a subpoena to the Pennsylvania Department of State for various forms of information, including voter data such as driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers.
The department released some information but refused to disclose some voter data it deemed sensitive, arguing that the state constitution prohibits its release, while the state’s attorney general said the subpoena would compromise the privacy rights of Pennsylvanians.
State Sen. Cris Dush, a Republican who chairs the committee, responded to these claims in a statement on Oct. 1, 2021, that labeled the concerns as unfounded.
“The politicians who are telling these tall tales know there is a better chance of a Pennsylvanian being struck by a meteor than having their personal information compromised by our election investigation,” Dush wrote. “Unfortunately, many members of the media have bought into their false narrative and created doubts in the minds of good, honest citizens.”
According to Pennsylvania’s certified election results, Biden beat Trump by more than 80,000 votes.