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Update, June 29: As of Thursday morning, Al Schmidt has been confirmed as secretary. A spokesperson for Senate Republicans confirmed Wednesday that the Senate would not be voting on his nomination, meaning that he was confirmed by default.
“It’s a privilege to be able to serve Pennsylvania as secretary of the Commonwealth. I’m grateful to Governor Shapiro for nominating me,” Schmidt said in a press release.
Al Schmidt, the former Philadelphia city commissioner who made national headlines in 2020 from rebuking then-President Donald Trump’s election fraud claims, is one step closer to officially becoming Pennsylvania’s top election official.
Pennsylvania’s Senate State Government Committee, a powerful, Republican-led committee overseeing election law and the Department of State, advanced Schmidt’s nomination to be secretary of the commonwealth in a nearly unanimous vote Monday.
Schmidt’s favorable recommendation from the committee is just the first step in his confirmation, but the praise he received from senators with a history of being critical of the department bodes well for his chances of being confirmed by the full body. That vote will need to happen quickly, as a statutory deadline on his nomination is Wednesday.
“I will be voting to recommend you today,” said state Sen. Cris Dush (R, Jefferson), who chairs the committee, though he added that his vote was based on Schmidt’s assurances “to make sure elections are administered in an unbiased and nonpartisan manner” in compliance with state law.
State Sen. Judy Ward (R, Blair) thanked Schmidt for his forthrightness and said she was pleased with his responses before voting to recommend him for confirmation.
The only senator on the committee to vote against recommending Schmidt was state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R, Franklin). Mastriano was one of Pennsylvania’s most vocal and visible figures boosting former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud in 2020.
He has also been sharply critical of Philadelphia’s elections.
“Philadelphia is not a golden gem of voting integrity,” Mastriano told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter after Monday’s hearing. “The lack of action by Schmidt in the recent elections here just gives me pause. It’s easy to say things, but when he had a chance to make a difference and to look into voting concerns, we were stonewalled.”
Schmidt, who helped run elections in Philadelphia as the lone Republican city commissioner for more than a decade, rose to national prominence in the aftermath of the 2020 election for his forceful rejection, amid violent threats, of Trump’s election fraud claims. President Joe Biden awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal this year, and he went on to lead The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based nonpartisan good government group, before Gov. Josh Shapiro nominated him to the secretary role.
Schmidt’s nomination will now advance to the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee before going to the full chamber for a final vote. By law, Schmidt’s confirmation has to be considered by the full Senate within 25 legislative days of the governor making the nomination or Schmidt will automatically assume the job and can leave behind the “acting” part of his title. He would be the first confirmed secretary of the commonwealth since Kathy Boockvar resigned in February 2021.
The hearing Monday — Schmidt’s second before the committee — was originally scheduled for last Tuesday. But the hearing was canceled less than an hour before its start time due to what Dush described as ongoing negotiations between the committee and the Department of State for data requested at Schmidt’s first hearing.
At that first hearing, in late May, Dush and other Republican senators asked Schmidt a series of questions aimed at probing the effectiveness of a multi-state voter roll maintenance compact the state belongs to, known as the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. Dush is sponsoring a bill aiming to remove Pennsylvania from the compact, though the legislation has only a slim chance of passing the Democratic-controlled House and receiving Shapiro’s signature.
Discussion of ERIC — which has been a target of right-wing election activists in recent months, leading several Republican states to withdraw from it — took up most of the conversation in that hearing and led at times to contentious counter-questioning from Republicans and Democrats on the committee.
Dush had specifically asked Schmidt for data showing the number of ineligible voters who were removed from the state’s rolls due to lawsuits who had also been flagged for removal by ERIC. He appeared to be looking for data to assess whether ERIC has successfully identified ineligible voters or whether the state could do better on its own, as some exiting Republican-led states have argued. Dush also asked about eligible but unregistered voters identified by ERIC — a function of the program that Republican officials have criticized.
During his first hearing, in late May, Schmidt defended ERIC as an important tool in keeping the state’s voter rolls accurate, and emphasized that it provides information that would not otherwise be available.
“There are elements [of voter roll maintenance] that would be lost” if Pennsylvania didn’t participate in ERIC, Schmidt said, emphasizing that there is not currently a viable alternative.
For example, he noted that not all voters who move to another state are listed in the National Change of Address data, one potential alternative source.
Dush is perhaps best known for leading an attempt by the Pennsylvania Senate to perform an Arizona-style investigation of the 2020 election. Already this session, he has sponsored bills to eliminate mail-in voting and require additional election audits. His appointment to chair the Senate State Government Committee raised concerns with some Democrats and election reform advocates who feared he would impede proposals with more mainstream support.
Nonetheless, the recent hearings also featured moments of agreement between the department, which is part of a Democratic administration, and the Republican committee overseeing it.
In response to a question from Dush at the May hearing about election administration problems in Luzerne County, which experienced a ballot paper shortage that interfered with voting in November, Schmidt was ready to talk about solutions.
“I think very strongly assisting the counties with some sort of manual or guidance for incoming election administrators to consult, so that you know X number of days before an election, you better order the paper you’re going to need … we can help mitigate the problems you just described,” Schmidt said.
Dush agreed, describing his support for documentation for elections officials similar to the “continuity books” used in the military when a new officer takes over a position.
Also Monday, Schmidt gave a new timeline for a long-anticipated update to the state’s voter registration system. Election administrators often describe the current system, built in the early 2000s, as outdated, sometimes buggy, and unable to handle changes brought on by Pennsylvania’s 2019 introduction of universal mail-in voting. The update had initially been planned for this year.
Schmidt said the department was now considering a release date in early 2025 rather than during the 2024 presidential election, citing concerns that a large system change in a presidential election year could cause new problems for election officials.
“No one would really want to release a new system at a time of high turnout,” he said.
It is unclear if the state Senate will act on Schmidt’s nomination or let him assume the position by default. As of Monday, no hearing in the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee had been scheduled nor had a vote in the full Senate.
Lauren Cristella, the new president of the Committee of Seventy, credited Schmidt with navigating the questions of the hearing under pressure.
“I really do think he tries to meet people where they are and hear their concerns and present them with facts,” she continued. “He’s done that with voters and the media across the spectrum, and I think that’s what you saw him present in the meeting.”
Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org