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Gov. Shapiro launches election security task force ahead of 2024 elections

Credit: Commonwealth Media Services

Kim Lyons, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 29, 2024

Gov. Josh Shapiro on Thursday announced the state would revive a task force first convened during Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration to mitigate threats to the state’s elections processes and protect voters from intimidation.

“Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, and we are working to continue defending Pennsylvanians’ fundamental freedoms and ensure we have a free, fair, safe, secure election this November,” Shapiro said in a statement shared with the Capital-Star on Thursday.

First reported by NBC News, the Election Threats Task Force will be overseen by Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt and will include officials from several government agencies, including law enforcement, emergency management and homeland security.

“As attorney general, I brought law enforcement leaders at every level together to ensure our elections remained free from fraud, interference, and intimidation here in Pennsylvania – and I made a commitment to continuing that work as governor,” Shapiro said.

“We take our responsibility as stewards of our democracy seriously and the Election Threats Task Force will ensure all levels of government are working together to combat misinformation, safeguard the rights of every citizen, and ensure this election is safe, secure, free, and fair.”

Then-Gov Wolf first announced the creation of a multi-agency organization in 2018, called the Inter-Agency Election Preparedness and Security Workgroup, which was led by the then-Secretary of the Commonwealth and the Office of Administration’s chief information officer.

According to the release from Shapiro’s office, the primary goal of the task force will be coordination of plans and sharing of intelligence among the offices who oversee segments of election safety that don’t always intersect. On this list are state and federal Homeland Security officers, the U.S. attorney’s offices for Pennsylvania’s three federal districts, the state attorney general’s office, state police, the Pennsylvania National Guard, and information technology and emergency management officials.

Changes to Pennsylvania’s election administration for recent elections, including the introduction of no-excuse mail-in voting in 2020, have been the subject of lawsuits, as well as widespread misinformation. The question of whether ballots with missing or incorrect dates should be counted has been a factor in its elections since Pennsylvania’s no-excuse absentee voting law took effect in 2020. And the outcome of a lawsuit now before the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals will determine how such ballots are handled in the 2024 presidential election in which Pennsylvania is considered a must-win state.

“In recent years, we’ve seen bad-faith actors attempt to exploit these changes by spreading lies and baseless conspiracy theories, and attempting to delegitimize our safe, secure, and accurate elections,” he said Thursday. “This task force has been working together to develop and coordinate plans to combat this dangerous misinformation and continue providing all eligible voters with accurate, trusted election information. Together with Governor Shapiro and our local, state, and federal partners, we will continue working to ensure we have another free and fair, safe and secure election.”

Before becoming Secretary of the Commonwealth in 2023, Schmidt was president and CEO of the nonprofit good-government organization Committee of Seventy, after serving as a Philadelphia City Commissioner for 10 years. Part of his role as a commissioner was serving on the three-member Board of Elections.

In 2020, Schmidt publicly refuted allegations of election fraud in Philadelphia, becoming the target of an attack by former President Donald Trump. Schmidt testified before the Jan. 6 House Select Committee in 2022 that he received graphic and specific threats against himself and his family after Trump tweeted about him in the days following the 2020 election.

Speaking Monday at the Pennsylvania Press Club’s monthly luncheon, Schmidt called high turnover among election officials in Pennsylvania counties a real concern: Roughly 70 senior directors or those directly underneath them have left, he said. In the current environment, Schmidt added, “any mistake no matter how innocent, is so easily interpreted as being intentional, malicious, and seeking to change the outcome of an election.”

The Shapiro administration has taken other steps to try to improve voter access and the voting process, including a November 2023 redesign of its mail-in ballots. In September, Shapiro signed an executive order to implement automatic voter registration at PennDOT driver license centers, an order that’s now the subject of a lawsuit brought by some Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers.

State Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) said Thursday that the Republican Caucus “has been and remains committed to strengthening election integrity in Pennsylvania because we believe that the foundation of a healthy and vigorous democracy requires free, fair, and secure elections.”

Pittman criticized the task force, which he said was “crafted by a unilateral decision made by the Shapiro Administration without any input from the General Assembly – the branch of government most representative of the will of the people of Pennsylvania.”

Pittman added that Senate Republicans “have led the fight to make critical reforms to restore faith in the voting process. This session the first piece of legislation advanced within the General Assembly was Senate passage of Senate Bill 1, which provided for a constitutional amendment on voter identification,” which he said would serve to enhance “election integrity.” Senate Bill 1 previously drew the ire of Democrats who said it would disenfranchise voters.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.