HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Senate’s first confirmation hearing for acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt focused on election integrity and security, with many questions surrounding past practice predating the nominee’s brief time with the Department of State.

Gov. Josh Shapiro appointed Schmidt to the position when he first took office in January. Schmidt had been leading the good-government group Committee of Seventy. Prior to that, Schmidt served 10 years as a Republican Philadelphia city commissioner and was a member of the city’s Board of Elections.

Appearing before the Senate State Government Committee, led by Sen. Cris Dush, R-Cameron/Centre/Clinton/Elk/Jefferson/McKean, Schmidt fielded questions about mail-in voting and ensuring the system’s security, the use of drop boxes and potential security breaches, and undocumented immigrants casting ballots.

A substantial portion of the three-hour hearing, the first of at least two nomination hearings to be held for Schmidt, was dedicated to ERIC — the Electronic Registration Information Center, a multi-state clearinghouse where states share data to accurately update voter rolls. Pennsylvania is one of 31 states along with Washington D.C. that belong to the initiative.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization was sparsely known prior to the tumult following the 2020 presidential election. Multiple Republican-led states have recently withdrawn or indicated they plan to do so over concerns about partisanship and loss of state control of elections, including Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

Dush called for Pennsylvania to withdraw, too, during a Department of State budget hearing in March. Schmidt, as acting commonwealth secretary, is the head of the Department of State. Dush is among the Republican state lawmakers who actively challenged the validity of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Schmidt said ERIC is most effective with greater participation. Without data sharing between states, it’s more difficult to accurately update voter rolls and purge former or deceased residents. He frequently cited the example of someone moving from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. They may not file a change of address but might register to vote or get a new driver’s license in their new state. Pennsylvania wouldn’t catch that without cooperation from a participating state in ERIC.

Counties are charged with updating voter rolls, and specifically with using information shared from ERIC, Schmidt said during Wednesday’s committee hearing. The Department of State must assert itself as a better leader in ensuring this is accomplished, he said.

Dush asked about a settlement between the commonwealth and the conservative foundation Judicial Watch that resulted in about 178,000 ineligible voters being removed from state voter rolls. He consistently pressed Schmidt on this issue, asking whether ERIC was functioning in its duty and whether it should have caught these ineligible voters on its own.

Schmidt said the five counties involved in the settlement — Carbon, Cumberland, Indiana, Luzerne and Washington — weren’t actively updating voter rolls.

“The counties are the ones that ultimately have to cancel the records,” he said.

Schmidt repeatedly reminded the Senate panel that he wasn’t with the Department in 2020 and 2021 but would attempt to answer questions and fulfill information requests concerning voter registration data and mail-in ballots.

“I would ask you to make your ultimate assessment based on my qualifications and what I’d call my trustworthiness,” Schmidt said in the latter part of the hearing.

“I am fully with you on that. I have high hopes,” Dush said. “The questions here are how are you going to address the questions the public has?”

Schmidt told the panel there doesn’t have to be a choice between improving voter access and election integrity. He said he’s directed the Department of State not to issue any guidance within 45 days of an election — a major point of contention in 2020 concerning mail-in voting.

Dush credited Schmidt with supporting local elections officials and noted his work in seeking to expunge illegal aliens from voter rolls.

“I have high expectations of you because of the opportunity to work with you before,” said Dush, who has promised a “tough, but fair” confirmation hearing.

Asked about cases where Lancaster County recalled ballots following a printing error and Luzerne County ran out of paper ballots, Schmidt said improved communication between the state and county elections boards is necessary. He said Pennsylvania will suffer from the continued loss of experienced election workers, with the state struggling to recruit replacements — another area where he said improvement is needed.

“It’s something I’ve long described as a slowly unfolding crisis. It becomes harder and harder with each election,” Schmidt said of recruiting poll workers during questioning by Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Delaware/Philadelphia. “They’re the most important people in Pennsylvania on Election Day.”

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