Senate committee investigating Pa. elections holds hearing on ballot drop boxes, Dems walk out

‘The Democrats will not participate in a kangaroo operation that is set up with no bipartisanship conversation beforehand, as is the case of all of the hearings that we do in this body,’ Sen. Vincent Hughes, said

By: - March 31, 2022 2:37 pm

State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Sept. 15, 2021 Senate hearing to approve subpoenas for a legislative investigation of the 2020 election as panel chair Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, listens (Capital-Star photo).

The Pennsylvania Senate committee investigating the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections saw a walkout from Democratic members after its Republican chairperson refused to swear in a conservative panel in its first public meeting since September.

“The Democrats will not participate in a kangaroo operation that is set up with no bipartisanship conversation beforehand, as is the case of all of the hearings that we do in this body,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, shouted as the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee sat at ease Thursday.

Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, who chairs the Republican-controlled panel, briefly suspended the hearing — publicly advertised as a meeting on ballot drop boxes — after Hughes directed a line of questions to Lehigh County Republican Committee Chairperson Joseph Vichot about a video showing an individual placing a handful of papers into a drop box in Lehigh County.

Vichot, joined by three other panelists, did not take an oath to swear that his remarks were truthful despite requests from Hughes and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, that Dush swear in the panelists — a typical practice at legislative hearings.

“Without being sworn in, it puts the veracity of truth in question,” Hughes, who has repeatedly blasted the GOP-initiated election investigation, told the Capital-Star after leaving the meeting.

Hughes left about an hour after Costa urged his colleagues to leave the meeting, which he described as a “waste” of taxpayer dollars. Costa added that the “number of senseless hearings” the General Assembly has conducted since the 2020 election to “support the erroneous claims of fraud [is] incalculable.”

“This is a charade,” Costa, who joined remotely, said. “You’re looking at evidence that’s ridiculously put together by your team, your people.”

Sens. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, and Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, did not attend the meeting.

Leslie Osche, a Republican county commissioner from Butler County, Jessica Morgan, a Republican judge of elections in Luzerne County, and John Lott, a conservative who is now president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, also offered remarks on Thursday without swearing an oath. 

All of the conservative panelists expressed frustration with ballot drop boxes.

Hughes said that Democratic committee members did not have time to prepare for Thursday’s hearing or invite participants to speak about ballot drop boxes.

Efforts to review past elections come after former President Donald Trump and his allies launched a months-long campaign to promote baseless claims of voter fraud and election misconduct to justify his loss to now-President Joe Biden, who won in Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes.

Legal challenges to the results failed in court, and two post-election audits carried out in Pennsylvania after the presidential election found no evidence of fraud.

Democrats have dubbed the election review in Pennsylvania as a “sham.” They’ve also raised concerns about Sens. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, and Judy Ward, R-Blair, sitting on the committee because of their ties to a third-party election review in Fulton County that prompted the Department of State to decertify the county’s voting machines.

Earlier this year, Mastriano, a Trump ally who funded a bus trip to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, also received a subpoena from the U.S. House committee investigating the Capitol riot. 

In June, Mastriano launched a so-called “forensic investigation” of the 2020 election and made a sweeping request for election equipment and voter information in Philadelphia, York, and Tioga counties.

Since Dush replaced Mastriano as the committee’s chairperson in August, the panel issued a legislative subpoena for millions of voters’ driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers as part of the taxpayer-funded review.

The legal request is tied up in court, with legislative Democrats and Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro challenging the subpoena.

The Senate Republican caucus also entered into a contract agreement with Envoy Sage, LLC, an Iowa-based company, to help carry out the election review. Democrats have also expressed concerns about the firm’s credentials and security policies.

Dush said that Republican committee members didn’t know about the hearing “until about two days ago.”

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Dush defended his decision not to swear-in meeting participants, saying: “I wanted this to be more informative and free-flowing in the way that the discussion went. I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t have that kind of cooperation. My testifiers were willing to answer any question.”

In September, Fulton County Commissioner Stuart Ulsh, a Republican, appeared before the panel to testify about election guidance issued ahead of the 2020 general election. He was sworn in before offering a prepared statement and answering questions from committee members.

In the weeks and months after the fall hearing, lawmakers and government watchdogs raised concerns about inconsistencies in Ulsh’s testimony. Text messages obtained by the Capital-Star and other media outlets through open records requests contradict Ulsh’s statements.

Dush added that the Senate committee received a letter and sworn affidavit to clarify Ulsh’s testimony. The documents will be added to the committee’s records, Dush told reporters.

“We need to be able to tell the whole story … my actions speak to the intent that I want this to be a nonpartisan thing because I just want the facts,” Dush said, adding that he’s willing to discuss election integrity measures with opposing parties.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Dush said it is “deceptive” to imply that remarks from the panelists were “anything other than authentic and true.” He described actions from Democrats as “unproductive and dramatic.”

“But it was incredibly disrespectful to the testifiers who want nothing more than to help this committee work towards ensuring election integrity,” Dush said.

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