Senate Panel Recommends Schmidt as Pennsylvania Secretary of State, Votes for Anti-ERIC Bill

Pennsylvania’s Senate State Government Committee on Monday recommended confirming secretary of the commonwealth nominee Al Schmidt.

The panel voted 10-1 to back the Republican acting secretary and former Philadelphia city commissioner. In a subsequent, off-the-floor meeting, the committee approved a bill to facilitate removal of Pennsylvania from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a controversial multi-state data-sharing program supporters say helps states maintain accurate voter rolls. The bill would permit the state to use the Social Security death database and change-of-address records to identify voter-registry errors.

Only Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Gettysburg) opposed Schmidt’s appointment. Senators split along party lines on the ERIC-related bill, with the committee’s seven Republicans in favor and its four Democrats opposed. 

A Mastriano press aide did not return a request for comment on his decision to oppose Schmidt’s confirmation. A stalwart supporter of former President Donald Trump’s challenges to certification of the 2020 election, Mastriano was among the most vocal critics of election-policy decisions made in Philadelphia that autumn. He particularly denounced the city’s use of ballot drop-boxes and its decision to deny poll watchers the ability to closely observe ballot canvassing.

Aside from Mastriano, Schmidt (pictured above) received an outpouring of support from committee members for his official accession to the position for which Governor Josh Shapiro (D) selected the former municipal election official in January. If confirmed by the full Senate, Schmidt will continue to oversee elections as well as well as professional licensing and corporate registration in Pennsylvania. 

“You have answered all of our questions, you have been very forthright with your answers [and] the statements you made earlier indicate your willingness to get the Department of State to be up to date and be current in their workload,” Senator Judy Ward (R-Hollidaysburg) told Schmidt a few minutes before the vote. “I see this as a window to the future and I’m very pleased with what I see and the answers that I’ve heard.” 

In the hour before Monday’s vote, the nominee addressed the modernization and workload-management concerns Ward voiced in the second of two Senate confirmation hearings. He reported to the committee that his agency reduced businesses filing wait times from eight weeks to mere days over the last six months. He further predicted that his department will have a working replacement for the ill-reputed Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE) system by the 2025 primary election. 

Schmidt called complaints about the substandard quality of SURE “justified,” describing the registry “antiquated and need[ing] replacing.” His comments align with Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s finding in 2019 that Pennsylvania’s voter rolls contain thousands of apparent errors. 

Schmidt and committee Chairman Cris Dush (R-Bellefonte) did politely clash on the issue of Pennsylvania remaining in ERIC. The chair asked the nominee, who supports the commonwealth’s continued membership, whether Pennsylvania could remain in the organization while opting out of its requirement that states reach out to register new residents who are eligible to vote. 

“None of the states have an à la carte option to do one piece of [ERIC membership obligations] and not the other,” Schmidt explained.

Republicans on the committee did find common ground with the acting secretary on other issues. For one, Schmidt called for stricter rules on chain of custody when ballots are retrieved from drop boxes and brought to county election boards. He called for clearer documentation as to who handled ballots and he suggested law enforcement participate in ballot retrieval whenever feasible.

And although Schmidt backed Philadelphia’s use of private grants to aid election administration in 2020, particularly from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), he agreed with GOP senators that the use of private funds to conduct elections is not ideal. Many Republicans criticized counties’ use of CTCL funds that year because evidence emerged that organization officials made special effort to steer them to Democrat-leaning counties. Critics sometimes referred to CTCL grants as “Zuckbucks” or “Zuckerbucks” because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a major center donor. 

A bill sponsored by Senators Lisa Baker (R-Dallas) and Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-Jacobus) that passed in 2022 banned such third-party election grants in Pennsylvania and created a state grant program to which counties could apply to assist their election proceedings. Schmidt suggested those grants have been helpful so far, especially considering the tidal wave of absentee voting that the Keystone State has seen since unconditionally allowing it two years ago. 

“Fortunately, with Act 88, counties are able to use resources to pay for many of the other things that they need to conduct elections…,” he said. “Really, anything related to election administration is better when you’re spending public dollars and, thanks to Act 88, private dollars are no longer a concern.” 

Democratic legislators have meanwhile been universal in their support of Schmidt so far. 

“We need an honorable, effective leader who will utilize their background and experience to guide the department and I believe that acting secretary Schmidt has thus far demonstrated the qualities that Pennsylvania needs in this role: integrity, strong character and a commitment to democracy,” committee Minority Chair Amanda Cappelletti (D-Norristown) said at the hearing.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Al Schmidt” by Al Schmidt.


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