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Concerns Raised About Data Privacy Amid Pa. Election Review

Hundreds of Pennsylvania residents are worried that personal information may be released as the state’s Senate Republicans begin a review of the 2020 election results, despite no evidence of voter fraud.

(TNS) — "Another attempt to act on the ridiculous lie that President Biden did not win the 2020 election."

"Please, please don't let the Pa. Republicans harvest my personal information and turn it over to an unnamed third party."

"My husband and I work hard at protecting our personal information against identity theft. To think that this info will be handed over to some kind of 'ninjas' trying to justify the big lie that trump won."

Those are among the hundreds of messages people have sent to state authorities and local election officials expressing concern that what Pennsylvania Senate Republicans call their "forensic investigation" of the 2020 election may lead to the improper disclosure of sensitive personal information.

The messages, some cited in newly disclosed court records, suggest that even as Republicans say their review is necessary to address their constituents' mistrust in elections — doubts fueled largely by former President Donald Trump's lies of a stolen election — the probe has also incensed other voters who see the whole thing as a nakedly partisan exercise with real costs.

The pushback followed last month's vote by a GOP-led Senate committee to subpoena Gov. Tom Wolf's administration for millions of voter records, including nonpublic information such as the last four digits of Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers.

What to Know About Pennsylvania Republicans' Investigation of the 2020 Election

In the 10 days after the Sept. 15 subpoena, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office received emails and calls from 549 people "to express concern about the disclosure of their personal information to an unknown vendor, and the attendant risk of identity theft," it said in a court filing made public Thursday.

More than 300 voters in Bucks County have contacted elections officials there to express similar concerns, the Attorney General's Office said. It's not clear how many others may have reached out statewide, but officials in Chester County told The Inquirer they received about 20 calls and a dozen emails. Montgomery and Delaware Counties haven't tallied the number of inquiries, but officials there said they've heard concerns even while attending public events.

Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Bucks County commissioner, said the calls and emails have been among the highest volume topics she's seen outside of the coronavirus.

"I think it has to do with the fact that people are afraid of identity theft today. ... To sit there and watch your government give it to an unknown firm for no good reason is just appalling to people," said Ellis-Marseglia, a Democrat.

The messages were cited in court filings last week related to lawsuits by Senate Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro seeking to block the subpoena, saying it violated voters' privacy rights and interfered with their rights to free elections.

"The pall that would hang over future participation in the electoral process if the Subpoena is enforced will discourage voters from exercising their democratic rights," Deputy Attorney General Michael J. Fischer wrote in court papers.

A spokesperson for one of the Republican state senators spearheading the review accused Democrats of "baseless fearmongering" in a bid to shield elections from "any sense of transparency." Republicans also say they won't hire a contractor to help sort through the data until a judge weighs in on the matter. A hearing for arguments on the merits of the case has not yet been scheduled.

Why We're Not Calling it an Audit

The Inquirer is not currently referring to attempts by Pennsylvania Republicans to investigate the 2020 presidential election as an audit because there's no indication it would follow the best practices or the common understanding of an audit among nonpartisan experts. When asked by The Inquirer, lawmakers leading the effort have not explained how it will actually be run, including whether and how best practices will be followed; who will be involved, including the extent to which Republican politicians will play a role; how the review will be documented; how election equipment and ballots, if obtained, would be secured; and what the scope of any review would be. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes. State and county audits affirmed the outcome, and there is no evidence of any significant fraud.

Trump's Warning

The legal fight over the subpoena comes as Trump warned Republicans on Wednesday that his supporters will not vote in next year's midterm elections or in the 2024 presidential election "[i]f we don't solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented)."

And earlier this month, a U.S. Senate committee released a report alleging that two Pennsylvania Republicans — U.S. Rep. Scott Perry and State Sen. Doug Mastriano — played key roles in Trump's efforts to subvert the election. Mastriano called the report a "hyper-partisan" distraction. He led the push this year for what Republicans call a "forensic audit" until he was ousted from a key committee chairmanship amid an internal GOP power struggle. He still serves on the panel and voted in favor of the subpoena.

In an affidavit filed in Democrats' Commonwealth Court challenge to the subpoena, Ellis-Marseglia, the Bucks commissioner, said disclosure of such personal voter details would make it harder to administer elections by reducing the electorate's trust.

This isn't a unique vulnerability: Data breaches happen all the time in the public and private sectors. But that doesn't negate the risk, and elections experts have questioned whether Pennsylvania Republicans will follow their counterparts in Arizona, where a firm called Cyber Ninjas — which had no previous experience auditing elections and whose CEO promoted Trump's baseless fraud claims — conducted a sloppy partisan review.

The Republican-led Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted in July to approve almost $3 million to buy new voting machines, fearing that Cyber Ninjas tainted the ones used last year.

Republicans in Harrisburg say their inquiry is specific to Pennsylvania, though the lawmaker leading it — Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson) — has praised the Arizona review and went there to observe it. Republicans note that Pennsylvania already shares such records with a nonprofit consortium of states that work together to improve the accuracy of voter databases.

A top Pa. Republican made a big claim to defend the party's election review. There's no evidence for it.

" Senate Republicans have pledged to take every step necessary to protect this information," Dush said this month. "This includes insisting on contract language with potential vendors to ensure information security; forcing any vendor personnel who accesses this information to sign non-disclosure agreements under penalty of law; and making information security a key consideration as we decide which vendor to select."

He added there is a "better chance of a Pennsylvanian being struck by a meteor than having their personal information compromised by our election investigation."

'I Cannot Tell You How Outraged I Am'

Those explanations haven't satisfied everyone.

"I am a resident of Pennsylvania and extremely distressed to hear that you must sue Senate Republicans to stop them from acquiring voters' private data. I cannot tell you how outraged I am that Republicans are even attempting it," one person wrote in a Sept. 24 email to the Attorney General's Office, according to court filings, which did not identify the letter writers cited. .

"Outraged, frustrated, and scared," the email continued, adding: "p.s.: I am a registered Republican who puts country before party. I'm thankful we elected President Biden!"

Another wrote: "I do not want my personal information in the public domain. ... I am in my 70s and don't even bank by mail. Please stop this!!!"

"This is an obvious attempt to discredit my past (legitimate) votes," reads another message. "However, the real threat is the potential discouragement from voting in the future."

Others said they'd been victims of identity theft in the past.

Republican lawsuits over Pennsylvania's mail voting law have some Democrats quietly worried

Republicans say they've been also inundated with emails and phone calls from constituents upset about the election. "There's nothing I've gotten more phone calls on, nothing I've got more contacts on the street on than this issue, in my career," Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) said last month.

Still, some in the party have watched the proceedings with dismay.

"It's a world gone mad," Dave Reed, a former Republican House majority leader, wrote on Facebook after the subpoena was issued. "... It's been almost 11 months since the 2020 election; if they were serious about any sort of investigation it would have been done months ago, not just starting a year later. Where has the party of Reagan gone?"

Christine Reuther, a Democrat on the Delaware County Council, said Republicans have created "the very firestorm" of voter mistrust they claim to be responding to.

"Why are our state and Senate Republican leaders doing this?" she asked in an interview. "The only reason I can think is because they're terrified Donald Trump will [support a challenger against them]. They need to get over their fear of keeping their job and think about what their job actually is."

(c)2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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