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The Fraud Squad takes Pennsylvania

A woman amid a crowd of protesters holds up two colorful signs, one reading “Audit the vote” and another reading “Thank you Doug Mastriano.”
A protester shows support for an election audit — including appreciation for Sen. Doug Mastriano, who originally pushed for it — at the Rally for Freedom at the Pennsylvania capitol in August. (Paul Weaver / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

The Pennsylvania Let’s-Not-Call-It-An-Audit hit a fever pitch this week, as Senate Republicans issued a subpoena for personal information on every voter in the state. They have made little about their intentions clear: They haven’t said where they’ll store the data or how they’ll keep it secure, and they haven’t even picked a company to do the work. So what have they made clear? They are looking for fraudulent registrations — an altogether different objective than the shenanigans going down in Arizona. Rather than a rerun, this is more like a sequel: Call it Crosscheck II: The Fraud Squad Takes Pennsylvania

Does “Crosscheck” ring any bells? Awaken any nightmares? It was a chaotic matching program facilitated by the Kansas secretary of state’s office and championed in 2011 and beyond by the state’s then-secretary, Kris Kobach. Kobach said Crosscheck would take a look at the data in the voter roll and figure out who is in there twice and who might be dead and who is casting illegal votes from out of state — exactly what Pennsylvania’s Republicans senators are talking about doing now.

There were, of course, several problems with Kobach’s approach — as there will be in Pennsylvania. Primarily, Kobach didn’t fully understand how to use the databases. But also, the program was insecure and resulted in massive false positives. It stopped operating in 2017 because of, well, all of that. This failed program appears to, at least from what has been made public, be the Pennsylvania GOP’s blueprint. 

Pennsylvania Sen. Cris Dush, chairman of the committee conducting the audit, said the investigation was necessary “because there have been questions regarding the validity of people who have ... voted, whether or not they exist,” he said. When asked to elaborate, he said there had been reports of voters who had cast ballots from addresses later found to be vacant lots. He did not give more detail. The Senate will hire a third-party group to process the data, though he said it would be “hard” not to hire someone associated with the Cyber Ninjas’ work in Arizona. The effort now has a website, which also provides little clarity. The only information offered about the “critical” data they’ve requested is that it will provide “a clearer picture of potential problems with the state’s voter registration system and any other voting irregularities.” That doesn’t mean anything! 

So, does Dush say he’s re-creating Crosscheck, verbatim? No. But the only clear math between the data he has requested and the comments he’s made about its planned use equals a system very similar to what Crosscheck promised and failed to be: A top-notch tracker to sniff out all of those fake voters on the rolls. Crosscheck operated on a simple premise. It would take data offered by each secretary of state’s office and run the lists against each other, matching voters on first name, last name, and date of birth. And presto, bingo: They found thousands of people registered in more than one state. Except they didn’t, and Dush won’t be able to find people who have moved, died or improperly registered, either. 

And here’s the craziest part: A program does exist that will tell you if a person may have changed their address or could be registered out of state. And Pennsylvania already uses it, and it references far more data than Dush and his colleagues could ever reasonably subpoena out of state agencies. 

The program is the Electronic Registration Information Center, which uses data from the state’s election system and a second statewide database to verify voter information and produce lists of possible improperly registered voters to the state’s election office for further investigation. While the Pennsylvania GOP has requested partial Social Security numbers and birthdays, ERIC matches on everything from full Social Security numbers and email addresses. It then has data from dozens of other states to compare it to, providing additional avenues to ensure voter rolls are clean. It will flag voters registered in more than one county, voters who appear to have moved, have died, the list goes on, encompassing everything the GOP could possibly hope to find. In order to participate, states have to agree to share quite a lot of information, and the security protocols followed by the organization — which serves nearly 30 states — are transparently laid out and strictly followed. The program is owned and governed by the state officials who make up its membership. 

So the extent of the problem is not simply that these Republicans are asking for information they should not have and do not know how to protect — or even what they’ll do with it when they have it. It is not even that they have made clear taxpayers will pay the full cost of whatever investigation they choose to conduct. It is that Pennsylvania taxpayers are already paying for a better version of anything Dush could cook up in the Republican conference room at the Pennsylvania statehouse, and they’ve been paying for it since 2016

A hideous soundtrack Republicans apparently have on repeat this year is a remix of old ideas — like auditing the ballots, quality-testing machines, and cleaning voter rolls — that they’ve made worse as they remix them. We’re not about to hear Beyonce’s version of ERIC. We are about to hear Blink 182 rip off the chorus and shout it in a nasally screech. 

It would behoove them to, I don’t know, check to see what security measures are in place before demanding sensitive data you don’t know how to protect. And you should certainly do it before you tell taxpayers they are going to foot the bill to buy a knockoff version of the handbag they already owned. 

Back Then

The term “vote suppression” is a relatively new one. As Alexander Keysar notes in his book The Right to Vote, neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times used the phrases “vote suppression” or “voter suppression” at all during the 1980s. It began to pop up intermittently in the 1990s, though only 36 times total throughout the course of the decade. But between 2000 and 2008, the word was used 99 times in the two newspapers. The surge in popularity followed the 2000 election, when Republicans first began accusing Democrats of mass fraud at the national level, popularizing calls for laws Democrats said would suppress votes. “Manufacturing votes, bribing electors, intimidating local officials...this is the only way Gore can win,” GOP operative Mary Matalin said in November of 2000. That election led to the first and only time the federal government has meaningfully stepped in to shape the administration of elections, or to fund them. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 — prompted by the chaos after the hanging chad debacle in Florida and accusations of fraud — offered significant federal funding, created the Election Assistance Commission, and required states to have centralized voting rolls. This decade saw a heightened focus on voting and its mechanics, and the Bush administration’s DOJ took specific interest in sniffing out voter fraud. The term “voter suppression” would be used throughout this decade, becoming normalized in popular culture, to refer to much of this activity.

In Other Voting News

  • It’s been a long wait, but the two-pronged battle over Kris Kobach’s proposed requirement for documentary proof of citizenship for voter registrations is finally over. A federal appeals court had already found Kansas’s 2013 law to be unconstitutional way back in 2018, and the Supreme Court had already declined to intervene, blocking the state’s law. But a second federal court case questioned whether former Election Assistance Commission Executive Director Brian Newby — now the election director in North Dakota — violated federal law by agreeing to allow Kansas, along with Alabama and Georgia, to require such documentation. Newby, who’d previously been appointed by Kobach in Kansas as the Johnson County election director, greenlit the additional voter registration requirement in the three states, prompting a coalition of civil rights groups to sue in 2016. More than five years later, a federal judge has agreed: Newby violated federal law by not questioning whether the proposed new requirements were necessary for voter registration. The EAC will now have to consider the issue all over again, though it will have no practical impact on Kansas’s ability to resurrect the law. Alabama and Georgia passed similar laws, but have not enforced them, pending the outcome of Kansas’s litigation and the litigation against Newby. 
  • Democrats have finalized a compromise version of the For the People Act, which has been months in the making as they attempted to get Sen. Joe Manchin on board with a rewrite. The new version, called the Freedom to Vote Act, changes almost none of the election administration problems we identified in March. And the bill remains unlikely to pass. Even if all 50 Senate Democrats support it, 10 Republicans would have to agree to the bill or Democrats would have to force meaningful filibuster reform. Neither option seems particularly fruitful. 
  • A panel of judges has ruled, in a split decision, that North Carolina’s 2018 voter ID law is unconstitutional. The majority wrote that the law “was enacted in part for a discriminatory purpose, and would not have been enacted in its current form but for its tendency to discriminate against African American voters.” In 2018, North Carolina voters approved an amendment to the constitution requiring ID to be presented at the polls. The legislature passed a law shortly after, during the lame duck session, but Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it. The legislature then overrode his veto, and the law was enacted. 
  • The “forensic audit” in Wisconsin looks a lot like the one shaping up in Pennsylvania, in that we have no idea what it looks like. Republicans in the state Assembly have not said specifically what they are looking for, but they contracted with former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman to lead the investigation and expect to pay at least $675,000 in taxpayer money for it. Gableman, who once publicly said the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump, has not announced who he’s hired to do the work. An email this week to at least 25 county clerks, signed by Gableman, contained a PDF with some baffling demands and was flagged as junk mail in many cases. The PDF noted its author was a former Trump administration official.
  • An attorney for the Arizona Senate told a judge that the Cyber Ninjas’ report is expected on Sept. 24, but, maybe not. “Well, I should be precise about this,” Kory Langhofer said, after a chuckle, to the judge. “I believe the Senate is in possession of, or its agents are in possession of, a draft report but not from Cyber Ninjas. There were some ancillary reports, but the main one the Senate does not have yet.” In response to lawsuits, Cyber Ninjas and the Senate Republicans have turned over thousands of pages of documentation on the work, but not everything. Maricopa County is dealing with nonsense on multiple levels this week: A file of the county’s voter roll was posted online, which is a felony. The county is investigating the source of the posting.
  • Someone is knocking on doors in Florida to check voter information, but Pasco County Clerk Brian Corley says it’s no one from his office. Corley said other counties have received similar reports, including a report of a person falsely presenting themselves as a county employee. Voter information is publicly available in Florida, and it is not unusual for groups to canvas door to door. Voters in Florida should — as others should elsewhere — be aware of anyone presenting themselves in an official capacity, and ask to see county credentials before sharing personal information with anyone who comes to their door. 
  • WMAZ has a great report out on the impact of Georgia’s new election law on local elections. The biggest changes, they say, will be for voters who cast their ballots by mail and now have to comply with a slew of new deadlines. There will also be fewer drop boxes, and the county will set up self-serve water stations at the polls. 

Good Idea of the Week

The good idea of the week is from Virginia Beach, which invited the local broadcast media into the logic and accuracy testing of its voting machines ahead of the state’s elections, which are now under way. The piece explains the process accurately, and shows the process at work. The local elections administrator appears on camera, assuring voters this process has been in place for many years. This is a great example of how local media and county officials can work together to bring voters into the process, breaking down barriers that create stubborn misunderstandings. 

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