A top Pennsylvania Republican reboots 'audit' of 2020 vote, removes Trump ally as chair

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A leading Republican Pennsylvania state senator rebooted an Arizona-style investigation of last fall's vote tally nearly 10 months after President Joe Biden won the state by 80,000 votes, pledging to launch hearings this week.

The refresh has caused infighting between top Pennsylvania Republicans to spill into public view. Last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman removed fellow GOP Sen. Doug Mastriano, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, from leading the review, which began last month.

Corman pledged Monday to start the investigation this week under the leadership of GOP Sen. Cris Dush, who traveled with Mastriano in June to visit the site of the so-called forensic audit of about 2 million ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Corman announced Dush's appointment Friday, saying in a statement that Mastriano "retreated" from conducting the inquiry and "was only ever interested in politics and showmanship and not actually getting things done."

The kerfuffle has Corman and Dush taking heat from election deniers, who, with Arizona's review coming to a conclusion, could soon zero in on Pennsylvania as they push for similar reviews across the country — even though the results and Biden's victory have been affirmed again and again and courts have overwhelmingly rejected legal efforts to overturn them. At the same time, multiple Republicans in the state, one of last election's most critical battlegrounds, say that it's time to move on and that continuing to pursue the audit is unwise.

Last month, Mastriano launched his attempt at a ballot review mirroring the Arizona process, which has come under bipartisan scrutiny for a lack of transparency and the disregarding of several best practices and for being carried out by a group with no experience in Arizona elections.

He sent letters asking Philadelphia, York and Tioga counties under threat of subpoena for access to a variety of elections materials and equipment. The Pennsylvania State Department told counties not to comply with "any sham review of past elections that would require counties to violate the trust of their voters" and said it would use "every legal avenue available" to "oppose any attempt to disrupt our electoral process and undermine our elections."

Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid also warned counties that allowing third-party access to their voting machines would lead to decertification — and that they would be on the hook for the cost of replacement.

The counties didn't comply with Mastriano's request. USA Today reported last week that Mastriano, in a since-deleted Facebook live video post, lamented that Republican leaders blocked his plan to obtain subpoenas.

Mastriano's ouster was met with disappointment and anger on the far right. Audit the Vote PA, a group that has promoted unsubstantiated claims of fraud, said on Facebook that if Dush doesn't push Corman to reinstate Mastriano, "you will move to the top of our list of Senators who need primaried."

"We feel like the rug has been ripped out from under our efforts and we WILL NOT sit idly by and let it happen," the statement continued.

In a statement, Dush denied that he was tapped to lead the effort "for the purpose of killing it."

"The opposite is true," he said. "We should have been having hearings and moving toward a more formalized plan to conduct an investigation weeks ago. My team and I are in the process of getting things organized and will work with Senate Leadership to get it done."

Meanwhile, Corman appeared on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's online broadcast Friday and local right-wing personality Wendy Bell's Facebook stream to tamp down the idea that he was trying to curb the inquiry.

Corman said the committee needs to focus on ensuring that its subpoenas can withstand court challenges. Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and are conducting the investigation out of the Intergovernmental Operations Committee. Democrats contend that a different Senate committee, State Government, has jurisdiction over elections.

"One of the concerns is who is doing this work, because you want credibility," Corman told Bell, adding that the investigation must be conducted "in a way that will stand — not just ... for Republicans or a segment of the Republican Party. We want people in Pennsylvania to believe in what this investigation" reveals.

Corman also said that he spoke to Trump and that he thinks the former president is "comfortable where we're heading." In June, Trump said that if no audit takes place, "there is no way" Corman and other state GOP leaders "will ever get re-elected!"

Pennsylvania conducted two-post election audits confirming the accuracy of last fall's count, and the results were certified.

Voter fraud in U.S. elections is exceedingly rare. Trump's top cybersecurity official, Christopher Krebs, said the election last year was "the most secure in American history," and then-Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread malfeasance.

Mastriano, who participated in pro-Trump events in Washington, D.C., before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, has been one of the biggest purveyors of the false claim that there was widespread fraud in the election. His efforts have boosted his profile and his standing in Trump's orbit.

Some of his colleagues loudly oppose the review. Last month, Sen. Dan Laughlin, a Republican, said in an op-ed that there was no credible evidence of fraud and that "Donald Trump lost Pennsylvania because Donald Trump received fewer votes."

And last week, GOP Sen. Gene Law warned that such an audit would "not be a productive undertaking." He said that Republicans will have to fight "every move associated with" it in court and that Republicans "have not won a court case against the Wolf administration in over two years," referring to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

He called for Republicans to negotiate with Democrats to pass an election reform package. Wolf vetoed a GOP election law package this year, but he has since expressed more openness to a voter ID provision.

"Many of the emails I receive want an audit because the sender fully believes that Donald Trump will somehow be reinstated as president," he said in a statement. "That is the underlying rationale for many who support an audit. Unless there is a coup, which is not going to happen in the United States, the 2020 election is over. Biden is the president. An audit is not going to change that fact irrespective of the outcome."

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