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As the Legislature returns to work after a slow start to the session, progressive advocates and Democratic lawmakers worry a critical Senate committee will be a bottleneck for long-sought improvements, such as pre-processing mail ballots, to Pennsylvania’s election law.
Chairing that committee — in the only arm of government controlled by Republicans — is Sen. Cris Dush.
Dush is perhaps best known for leading an attempt by the Pennsylvania Senate to perform an Arizona-style investigation of the 2020 election, though his history with hard-right positions on election issues extends further back. Already this session, he has sponsored bills to eliminate mail-in voting and require additional election audits.
“People are worried about getting any election legislation past him,” said Kyle Miller, a policy advocate with the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy and a former aide to a Democratic member of the committee. “We don’t see a realistic path for getting anything done, given his past.”
But Democratic lawmakers say Harrisburg’s new political dynamic — with their party in charge of the state House for the first time in more than a decade — means Dush must adapt to the new reality and engage in order to stay relevant.
For any election legislation to pass this session, it will need to navigate through a divided Legislature, then receive the approval of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, who has been dismissive of Dush in the past.
Act 77, the 2019 law which allowed no-excuse mail voting in the state, started as a bill in the State Government Committee, which Dush now chairs. Any proposals this session, like giving election officials more time to process mail ballots or implementing other long-sought changes proposed by a bipartisan advisory board, also must pass through the committee.
Dush hasn’t spoken extensively about his election priorities for this session, aside from brief remarks earlier this month about voter ID and ballot chain of custody.
“... it will remain my priority to make critical reforms to our voting process to restore the faith of all Pennsylvanians in their elections,” he said in a news release.
He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, including emails, phone calls, and a visit to his Harrisburg office.
His district includes his home county, Jefferson, home to America’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, and the setting for the 1993 Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day.” Jefferson County’s 44,000 residents are mostly Republican, and they voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2020 and for 2022 GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a state senator.
Before entering politics, Dush was in the Air Force and was a correctional officer for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. In 2014, he was first elected to the state House, and took his conservative voting record to the state Senate in 2020.
Chad Horner, chair of the Jefferson County GOP, declined to talk about how conservatives in the area feel about Dush’s record, or his appointment as chair. But he did say county residents are concerned about the changes to the election system brought on by Act 77, about inconsistencies in voting policy from county to county, and about a perception that courts are usurping the Legislature’s authority.
“We need a uniform system that is fair to both political parties and, more importantly, the voters,” he said. “This should not be a political issue, and I hope Senator Dush and members of the legislature are able to address these issues so all voters have faith in our elections.”
A new reality
During the 2021-2022 legislative session, Republicans controlled the House and Senate and were able to get constitutional amendments advancing their policy priorities onto the ballot, a way to avoid Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto.
With Democrats in control of the House, that path is effectively closed.
“So you can’t just try to muscle through ideological positions without working across the aisle, or you reduce your position to rhetoric,” said state Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat on the State Government Committee.
For example, with the help of Dush’s committee, the Republican-controlled Senate in January approved a constitutional amendment that would expand Pennsylvania’s existing voter ID requirements — a top GOP priority. But the Democrat-controlled House did not take up the measure, stopping it before it reached voters.
Any election legislation needs House approval as well as Shapiro’s signature. The governor has repeatedly said he will not approve any measure he believes is restricting the right to vote. In addition, while campaigning for governor in Dush’s district last year, Shapiro called him a “profoundly weak person” while talking about persistent claims of voter fraud from Republicans.
Manuel Bonder, Shapiro’s press secretary, did not respond directly to questions about that remark or the relationship between the two officials, but said Shapiro would work with anyone “to strengthen our democracy and protect voting rights.”
“That said, any election skullduggery, conspiracy theories, or attempts to restrict the right to vote will be dead on arrival in the Shapiro administration,” he added.
Williams thinks the new dynamic will necessitate moderation, and he expects Dush “to evolve in his approach to the committee,” he said.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democratic colleague of Dush’s on the Intergovernmental Operations Committee, also hopes that “divisive issues can be left in the past.”
“[There’s a] new governor, new General Assembly, and a very, very promising budget picture that could really help implement a number of these reforms and do them well,” he said.
Others are less optimistic about what the State Government Committee will be able to accomplish.
“My expectations for that committee getting anything done that is good for democracy is a negative 12,” said state Sen. Katie Muth, who sits on the committee. “Maybe I am wrong, I hope I am wrong, but Dush has a lengthy history of election denial.”
In the Senate, the leadership picks which lawmakers will head committees. Muth pointed out that Senate Republican leadership chose to appoint Dush as chair with full knowledge of his record.
Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward and Majority Leader Sen. Joe Pittman did not respond to requests for an interview, though a spokesperson emailed a statement saying “leadership considers seniority, input from members, and interests” in making committee appointments.
Dush’s record on elections
Dush emerged as a key legislative player around 2017, amid a seismic shift in Pennsylvania’s elections when a court case involving the League of Women Voters resulted in the state Supreme Court invalidating the 2011 congressional district map.
Then in the state House, Dush introduced a resolution to impeach several justices. The resolution was unsuccessful but garnered Dush state and national media attention.
“People inherently understand that competitive endeavors, whether sporting contests or elections need rules to function smoothly giving the rule makers a vital role in shaping the competition,” Dush wrote in an article for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council — a nonprofit that helps conservative legislators share bills across state lines. “On January 22, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided the role of referee wasn’t good enough. The Court announced that it would usurp power lawfully held by the owners of the Constitution (The People) to create its own piece of law by drawing a new Congressional District Map for the Commonwealth.”
In the post-2020 election period, as former President Donald Trump and his allies spread false claims of fraud in the contest, Dush was among a group of legislators who asked Congress to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.
At the time, Dush was preparing to step into a new role. He had just won election to the Senate seat of former Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who had supported Dush’s primary opponent.
During his first term as a senator, he served as vice chair of the State Government Committee, and after then-Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman ousted state Sen. Mastriano as chair of Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, Dush was selected as chair of that committee.
It is here that he made his mark on elections issues while garnering the mistrust of his Democratic colleagues. He spearheaded the Senate’s attempt to perform an Arizona-style review of the 2020 election, which raised alarm bells from Democrats and election policy advocates for its ultimately unsuccessful subpoenas aimed at acquiring sensitive voter information.
“I think he ran the committee as a dictator and dictated to the minority,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, who served with Dush on the committee. Democrats on the committee had complained that decisions on the investigation of the 2020 election were being made unilaterally.
Costa said his concern is that Dush appears to believe the 2020 election was stolen, and that he has not shown interest in addressing the concerns most pressing to county officials, like pre-canvassing mail ballots.
Dush has also introduced several election-related bills over his years in government. One of his first actions as senator was to introduce a resolution on the day of Biden’s inauguration to declare the 2020 election invalid.
As part of the Senate’s election inquiry, Dush and Mastriano toured the Arizona review in the summer of 2021. Shortly after that trip Dush released a co-sponsorship memo advocating for ballot security features, including adding unique identifiers like QR codes to ballots, as a way to prevent fraud. The proposal appears to be mirrored on legislation introduced in Arizona and pushed by then-state Sen. Mark Finchem, a prominent purveyor of election misinformation who ran unsuccessfully for Arizona secretary of state last year.
Republicans in other states took up similar proposals. Although Dush never formally introduced his bill, he released another co-sponsorship memo about ballot security features this session.
Dush campaigned with Mastriano during his gubernatorial bid, saying at a Jefferson County event that “they” would steal the 2022 election “again.” He has also co-sponsored some of Mastriano’s election proposals, including a constitutional amendment to repeal mail-in voting and one requiring election equipment be manufactured in the United States.
In 2017 as a member of the House, Dush introduced a bill which would shift the way the state allocates presidential electoral votes, proposing a switch from awarding them to the state’s popular vote winner to awarding them by congressional district to the popular vote winner in each district, though the proposal never made it out of committee.
The practice, known as the Congressional District Method, is seen as an improvement over the current winner-take-all system, according to a study by Fordham University, since it “creates a mechanism for voters to exercise electoral power independent from the statewide plurality,” but would have resulted in former President Barack Obama losing the 2012 election despite winning the popular vote.
The committee’s only meeting so far this session did not bode well for future bipartisanship. Dush admonished state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti for calling the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol an “insurrection,” with Dush telling his colleague, “We don’t use that here.”
But other outside observers, like Pennsylvania League of Women Voters Government Policy Director Susan Gobreski, stressed the need for there to be less of a focus on personality and more of a focus on the impact of policy.
“We need to talk about ideas and if they are good or bad and who they impact,” she said. “The motives of the people pushing them matters sometimes, but what matters more is the impact of the policy.”
Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org.