Audit attempt follows Arizona effort’s footsteps
News that a state senator is launching an attempted audit of the state’s 2020 election results might have Pennsylvanians wondering: What would an election audit look like?
Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, opened his audit campaign this past week with letters to at least three counties, requesting they turn over election results and machinery. Mastriano — a prominent ally of former President Donald Trump — said the review isn’t meant to overturn the November 2020 election results.
“The goals are to restore faith in the integrity of our system, confirm the effectiveness of existing legislation on the governance of elections, and identify areas for legislative reform,” he said in a message to news outlets.
A similar, ongoing effort in Arizona offers clues to the form the audit could take.
In Maricopa County, where GOP state senators pressed for a review of ballots amid Trump’s unproven fraud claims, a collection of private companies and outside activists has taken a role in counting more than 2 million votes. Banks of tables and chairs are arrayed in a Phoenix indoor stadium, staffed by analysts who claim to be searching the ballots for evidence of fraud.
Funding for the Arizona review is murky: While the audit was backed by government officials, deep-pocketed private citizens like former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell have reportedly put money into the venture.
The groups and companies carrying out the Arizona audit haven’t released evidence to suggest widespread fraud. But reports of bizarre methods have trickled out, including a May report by an election official that auditors were searching for bamboo fibers to prove ballots were smuggled from overseas.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have taken note of the Arizona audit: Last month, Mastriano traveled with two colleagues to tour the audit site. A resolution calling for a full review of the 2020 election passed the state House in November with unanimous Republican support.
It’s unclear how much cooperation Mastriano will get in the Pennsylvania counties he hopes to audit. State officials have cautioned counties not to cooperate; Attorney General Josh Shapiro dismissed Mastriano on Thursday as a “seditionist.”
Bills would ease meeting access
With a new state law requiring government agencies to post their meeting agendas in advance, other efforts to open government meetings remain in the pipeline in Harrisburg.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill last week that requires any agency — including local governments and school boards — to post agendas online 24 hours in advance if they have a website. All agencies must post agendas at their offices, make copies available to meeting guests and stick to their planned items except in emergencies, according to the new law.
Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, first proposed the bill, which drew overwhelming bipartisan support and backing from groups like the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
“As Pennsylvanians become more interested in governing, we must ensure they are provided with information about what will be considered to effectively participate in the issues that matter to them,” Stefano told colleagues when he first proposed the bill.
Other bills or potential bills would lock in emergency changes to public access first made early in the coronavirus pandemic. Local government agencies were first allowed to hold remote meetings last year, and some lawmakers hope to make that policy permanent.
Last month, Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, suggested allowing third-class city councils to meet remotely, while Rep. Dan Williams, D-Chester, proposed the same for county commissioners. In both cases, they said, government bodies would no longer need a majority of members physically present to make decisions.
In April, Rep. Perry Warren, D-Bucks, proposed a bill to let borough councils meet remotely; it hasn’t made its way out of the House Local Government Committee.
It’s unclear what will happen in some municipalities now that the coronavirus disaster emergency has been formally ended.
“An unforeseen benefit of this emergency measure was increased statewide public participation in local government,” Williams said when he first proposed remote county meetings. “Simply put, residents were granted greater access to their elected officials and the officials, in turn, were given greater flexibility to attend important local meetings.”
Lawmaker seeks overtime return
After a budget deal stripped away expanded overtime for some salaried Pennsylvania workers, some lawmakers could carry on an uphill fight to restore it this session.
Last week, Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, announced his intention to propose an overtime law that matches a rule first set by Wolf last year. Wolf’s rule was recently repealed as part of a budget deal with the Republicans who control the Legislature.
That rule established that salaried workers should get time-and-a-half pay beyond 40 hours per week, as long as they make less than roughly $41,000 per year (the ceiling would rise in 2022).
With the rule’s repeal, the overtime cutoff remains at the federal level of $35,568.
“This year’s budget took away overtime pay for working families who deserve it and desperately need it,” Zabel said on Twitter.
Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers, owner of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.