Pennsylvania’s Senate Republicans kicked off their own “audit” of the 2020 election with a hearing Thursday, becoming the third state legislature to do so 10 months after voters rejected former president Donald Trump.
It’s not exactly clear what will happen with this audit and whether it will follow in the path of Arizona’s widely discredited review of the 2020 election, which continues to drag on with no end in sight. But the Pennsylvania probe, which will be funded by taxpayers, got off to an awkward start Thursday.
Stuart Ulsh, the chair of Fulton County Election Board in Pennsylvania, was the only witness at Thursday’s hearing. Ulsh had authorized a third party to conduct an election audit in his county at the request of a pro-Trump senator back in December. But in responding to questions from Democrats at the hearing, Ulsh repeatedly testified that the audit had found nothing wrong with the election. “Nothing was found,” he told senators.
Trump overwhelmingly won Fulton County, which has a population of about 15,000 people. Despite the fact that the county's audit did not find any fraud, it has served as inspiration for Trump supporters in states across the country seeking to reexamine the election. That’s in part because, as the Washington Post reported in June, a draft report declaring the election “well run” and “conducted in a diligent and effective manner” was revised to include the line “This does not indicate that there were no issues with the election, just that they were not the fault of the County Election Commission or County Election Director” and then added some potential problems.
Asked about that edit on Thursday, Ulsh said, “I didn’t write the report, didn’t tell them what to put in it.”
That the Fulton County audit failed to find any fraud didn’t seem to bother Republicans on the panel, who repeatedly said that if there weren’t any issues in the 2020 election, then counties should have no problem with an audit, a sentiment that has been echoed by Trump supporters pushing for audits in multiple states.
But there are literal costs to the election audits. Partisan investigations have already led to both Fulton County and Arizona's Maricopa County having their voting machines decertified because the counties had handed them over to contractors without sufficient election experience (only after a court order forced them to, in Maricopa County’s case). Those voting machines will need to be replaced before the counties’ next elections, something that’s expected to cost Maricopa County $2.8 million. Fulton County is suing over the decertification.
And the continued questioning of the 2020 results comes after elections officials of both parties in every state across the country conducted official postelection audits, all of which confirmed Trump’s loss — not to mention the statewide recount in Georgia, which was conducted by hand. Every court case challenging the election results and suggesting widespread voter fraud was thrown out. In reality, Republicans not named Trump won elections across the country in 2020, increasing their numbers in the House, holding on in tough Senate races, and gaining control of two more state legislative bodies. And, as Democratic state Sen. Anthony Williams said during the hearing, half of the Pennsylvania State Senate was elected or reelected in 2020, including Republican Cris Dush, who is leading Pennsylvania’s audit and won by a wide margin.
Dush, who chairs the Intergovernmental Operations Committee, opened the hearing with a line that audit leaders in Arizona and Wisconsin have used as well: This isn’t about overturning the election — something they have no power to do. “That horse is out of the barn,” he said. Instead, he and his counterparts in other states have insisted that these audits are about examining their election laws and potentially passing new legislation.
But it’s overwhelmingly clear that the message Trump’s supporters, pro-Trump media, and the former president himself are hearing and spreading is that this is about 2020. Jake Corman, the president pro tempore of the Pennsylvania State Senate who put Dush in charge, and audit leaders in other states have even co-opted Trump’s scientific-sounding language, calling these investigations “forensic” audits. Corman has said he’s spoken to Trump about Pennsylvania’s plan.
Williams, the top Democrat on the committee, gave an impassioned speech during Thursday’s hearing, calling the audit “a sham,” “a travesty, plain and simple,” and “one part of the ongoing nationally orchestrated attack on our electoral system.” He called out Republicans on the panel, saying that the audit’s goal is “simply to stoke distrust and division.”
“And the most exasperating part of it all is that everyone on this panel knows that. We know this and you know this,” he said, referring to the Democrats and Republicans on the committee. “And yet here we sit, witnessing the exploitation of the people out there who honestly believe that the lies that they’ve been told about so-called irregularities and rigging, the basis of which is not founded in fact, because they trust what they are told and by whom they are told. This is sad and it’s wrong.”
It’s not clear what Pennsylvania’s audit will look like from here. Dush said that the committee will hold additional hearings, and it has set up a website asking Pennsylvanians to “share any potential violations of election law or voting irregularities they have witnessed personally” for potential testimony. Corman has already threatened to subpoena the Department of State, which runs Pennsylvania’s elections (the office declined to participate in Thursday’s hearing, citing the Fulton County litigation), and he’s said he wants experienced auditors, according to the Associated Press.
Taxpayers will foot the bill for Pennsylvania’s audit, unlike the one in Arizona, which has relied almost entirely on private donations, many from big, dark-money groups run by pro-Trump figures, including former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and two reporters with the far-right One America News Network. Arizona’s effort, which is entering its fifth month, has cost millions of dollars so far, according to its lead contractor.
Wisconsin has also gone the taxpayer money route for its “audit,” which has taken the form of appointing a pro-Trump judge as a special counsel. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has approved $676,000 for that venture so far. As the AP reported, Pennsylvania Republicans could tap a $66 million reserve account, which the legislature has “maintained for years, managed in secret, with no rules over how it can be used” to pay for their audit.
Correction: Stuart Ulsh's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.