Pennsylvania Republicans start election review, Democrats call it a 'sham'

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HARRISBURG, Pa., Sept 9 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania kicked off an "election integrity" review with a public hearing on Thursday, joining partisan efforts in other battleground states to cast doubts on former President Donald Trump's November election loss.

The hearing at the State Capitol in Harrisburg was the first step in what is expected to be an expansive review of the 2020 election, though the lawmaker leading it stressed the goal was to restore trust in voting and not to overturn past results.

"That horse is out of the barn," state senator Cris Dush said, referring to Trump's loss in Pennsylvania to Democratic President Joe Biden by nearly 81,000 votes, a result confirmed by multiple audits and certified more than 9 months ago.

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Democrats portrayed the investigation as part of a broader, nationwide effort by Republicans to promote Trump's false claims attributing his defeat to widespread electoral fraud and enact laws that would make it harder for Democrats to vote. They said they believed Dush and others were laying the groundwork to restrict mail-in voting, among other steps.

"This is a sham. It's all just perpetuating a lie," said Anthony Williams, a Democrat and minority chair of the state Senate committee that initiated the review. "It is an attack on our right to vote."

Pennsylvania's election review will be closely watched by Trump's allies in Michigan, Wisconsin and other swing states where they are attempting to justify or forge ahead with "forensic" audits involving the inspection of paper ballots and tabulation equipment. Their model has been an ongoing audit in Arizona that a wide collection of election experts, Democrats and some Republican officials have rejected as a partisan operation run by contractors without relevant expertise.

Dush, a Trump supporter who toured the Arizona operation in June, spent much of Thursday's hearing probing what he called "last minute" guidance provided by the Department of State to counties about how to handle complications brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, such as the proliferation of voting by mail.

Stewart Ulsh, a Republican commissioner in rural Fulton County, was the only witness at the hearing.

Ulsh testified about his dealings with Department of State officials in the run-up to the election. He said frequent changes to its guidance on how to process ballots made the job of county officials more difficult.

Ulsh said Fulton County had not found any significant problems or fraud. He was also grilled by Democrats about an audit the county conducted in consultation with Republican lawmakers that led to the Department of State decertifying its voting machines.

Pennsylvania's attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, said the hearing showed Republicans are searching for wrongdoing that does not exist. "I've been hearing for weeks this was going to be a blockbuster hearing. Instead what I saw was a complete dud," he told Reuters.

Dush said his committee would consider issuing subpoenas to obtain information, without disclosing potential targets. He said the next hearing would focus on problems with the state's database for voting registrations.

The Department of State, which declined to participate in the hearing due to ongoing election-related litigation, said in a statement that the 2020 election was accurate and fair and predicted that after dozens of lawsuits and hearings the latest attempt to find wrongdoing would "fail again."

The review is expected to eventually include inspections of paper ballots and voting rolls, according to a person familiar with the matter, who added that a vendor to oversee the probe would likely be chosen soon.

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Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Alistair Bell

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