President Joe Biden won the popular vote in November by 8 million votes. But in a handful of battleground states, only a few tens of thousands of votes separated former President Donald Trump from a second term in office.
Within hours of the polls closing, many Republican officials began questioning the security and accuracy of the results, and they jumped to echo Trump’s false claims that if he lost, it was because Democrats cheated.
Democrats, in turn, call this argument “the big lie,” saying there’s no evidence of fraud on a scale big enough to reverse former President Donald Trump’s loss (a point made by Trump’s own attorney general in December).
Enter Lancaster County’s member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who introduced a bill at the end of January to create a bipartisan commission to study the 2020 election results, report on irregularities, and propose changes to election laws ahead of the next federal election in 2022.
Introduced with U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan, Smucker’s bill (H.R. 607) would focus the commission’s work on battleground states like Pennsylvania that Trump lost narrowly to Biden.
Even though Republicans gained seats in the House in the November election, Democrats control the chamber, making it all-but-impossible for Smucker’s bill to ever be approved. But analyzing its provisions provides insight into how rank-and-file Republicans hope continuing to push election security as a means to restrict voting access and further rehash the 2020 election could motivate voters next year and again in 2024, experts said.
Here’s what the bill would do:
The proposed Election Integrity Commission would be made up of 18 members:
Six members of the House from battleground states, three from each party, appointed by the party leaders in the U.S. House.
Six senators from battleground states, three from each party and appointed by the parties’ leaders in the chamber.
Six state or local election officials, three from each party, appointed jointly by the House and Senate leaders.
The battleground states
Under the bill, the commission would focus on states where the winning presidential candidate won by 1.5% or less. Though not identified by name in the bill, the states that fit this definition are:
Pennsylvania, with a 1.2% margin of victory for Biden (80,555 votes)
Wisconsin, with a 0.7% margin for Biden (20,682 votes)
North Carolina, with a 1.3% victory for Trump (74,481 votes)
Georgia, with a 0.2% margin for Biden (11,779 votes)
Arizona, with a 0.3% margin for Biden (10,457 votes)
This commission would study the effects of the pandemic on the administration of the 2020 election, vote-by-mail practices and any practices that led to “irregularities.” Additionally, the panel would be tasked with analyzing “measures that undermined the security and integrity of the election” and those that strengthened it.
The bill tasks the commission with identifying “best practices” each state should utilize for federal elections during the COVID-19 pandemic and future national emergencies.
The commission would have subpoena power to obtain data from the states and testimony from officials it wants to hear from. Given the 50:50 partisan split of the commission, it’s unclear how ties would be resolved -- if, for example, the nine Democrats want to hear from one official, but the nine Republicans don’t. Smucker did not respond to a question about this potentiality.
No later than 180 days after the legislation is enacted, the commission would submit to the full Congress an initial report. This would include precinct-level data of any “irregularities” found in ballots cast or voter registration. A final report would need to be presented to Congress within one year of its creation.
The legislation also calls for a minority report to be published when at least one-third of commission members dissent from the majority’s conclusions. This all but guarantees that the Republican members would be able to continue to question the 2020 results, even if there’s little to no evidence to back up their assertions.
On the surface, Smucker’s H.R. 607 is about gathering facts about a contested election. But the context is important, and it ties back to lies told by Trump and parroted by his supporters since the Nov. 3, 2020 election.
Smucker repeatedly voiced doubts about the election results in Pennsylvania in the months between the election and President Joe Biden taking office on Jan. 20. He signed onto legal briefs supporting lawsuits to overturn the election results in a handful of states. And in the early hours of Jan. 7, in the wake of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, Smucker joined 137 other Republican House members to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results.
Smucker says his legislation is necessary to rebuild trust among voters. During a March 1 congressional hearing, Smucker cited a January Muhlenberg College poll that found one in three Pennsylvanians is not at all confident that the state’s election results were accurate.
“Those are unacceptable results for a nation that stands as the beacon of freedom and democracy to the rest of the world,” Smucker said.
Nearly as many Democrats (28%) were uncertain about the accuracy of the 2016 presidential results, according to an analysis of public opinion surveys published by FiveThirtyEight.com.
So would Smucker’s legislation have any effect on ensuring trust among voters?
Patrick Christmas, the policy director at good government advocacy group Committee of Seventy, said the short answer is, no, pointing to the information bubbles liberals and conservatives limit themselves to.
“I don’t think it’s going to matter how many elections commissions are put forward, as long as others like Donald Trump are continuing to put forth lies about the election,” Christmas said.
Stephen Medvic, a government professor at Franklin & Marshall College, said If the intention is to restore trust in the country’s elections and recommend best practices, Congress should appoint a group of nonpartisan political scientists and other election administration experts to recommend best practices.
As the bill is written, however, it would allow political parties to continue to push their narratives of how the 2020 election was conducted, Medvic added.
“This would create two different reports, one saying there may have been minor irregularities but not nearly enough to change the results, as there are in every election because it is a human endeavor,” he said. “The minority party in Congress would say ‘No, no, no, we think they’re significant.’ How does that restore any trust for anybody? That’s just more partisanship.”
Creating federal solutions through this commission would also be counteractive of many traditional Republican values for states to decide how best to run their elections, Medvic added.
The bigger picture
Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature is currently conducting more than a dozen hearings about the 2020 election, with lawmakers vowing to change the state's voting laws to rein in absentee voting and other rules.
Since the 2020 election, Republican lawmakers have used voter fraud claims to attempt to restrict voting access. Lawmakers in 43 states have introduced more than 253 bills to make casting a ballot harder, including eight in Pennsylvania, according to a Brennan Center for Justice voting bills tracker. One of these intends to roll back the state’s expansive voting reform creating a no-excuses mail voting option in Act 77 of 2019.
According to Medvic, the commission proposal would mainly be used to rehash the 2020 election, and would likely serve as a signal to Trump’s base that Smucker and other Republicans are still fighting for them. In practice, it would lead to a “circus” atmosphere at commission meetings, with Democrats objecting to Republicans witnesses who lack evidence.
“If the goal is to improve election administration, we can do that without looking back to 2020,” Medvic added. “I don’t think that’s probably the goal, so then you have to ask yourself if Representative Smucker -- is this going to restore faith in the system? I find that really hard to believe.”