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Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter

People packed the Washington County commissioners meeting Thursday demanding officials perform a forensic audit on the county’s voting machines as part of a statewide group’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Several county probation officers and workers also attended the meeting, as they were honored with a proclamation for their work in the justice system.

Numerous people packed the Washington County commissioners meeting Thursday demanding officials perform a “forensic audit” on the county’s voting machines as part of an online group’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Many in the audience were spurred to attend by the “Audit the Vote PA” group that wants a full-scale recount across the state after making various claims that there was widespread fraud that led to President Joe Biden’s electoral victory in Pennsylvania last November.

Before the meeting’s public comment period, commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan addressed the audience, letting them know the county created an elections review committee early last year to look at policies and procedures “to restore voter confidence.” While Irey Vaughan said she would be in favor of a forensic audit if that committee eventually makes the recommendation to do so, she raised concerns about handing over the county’s voting machines and equipment to a third party, which would cause the equipment to be decertified.

“The ramifications and damages that the county will suffer will be great if such a full forensic audit occurs,” Irey Vaughan said.

She added the county would have to spend around $3 million to purchase new voting machines if they’re decertified by the state, and there’s no guarantee the new ones would be in place before this year’s off-year general election on Nov. 2. Irey Vaughan also touted the changes the county has made in recent years, including removing 9,000 inactive voters from the rolls, while also having only one drop box for mail-in and absentee ballots that was placed inside the elections office to allow for better supervision.

Meanwhile, Irey Vaughan said her office received about 40 complaints of “questionable” votes, but only found two situations that warranted being forwarded to District Attorney Gene Vittone’s office, Irey Vaughan said. They included one person who claimed to have voted multiple times despite not being registered in the county, and another person who was asked to vote using a provisional ballot because someone had apparently requested a mail-in ballot application on his behalf and the signature did not match his. Irey Vaughan said they have not heard an update from the district attorney whether an investigation was conducted or if it’s been completed.

But those comments did not appear to satisfy those attending the meeting, including 11 county residents or business owners who spoke at the lectern.

Paul Peternel of Cokeburg said he “fully supported” a forensic audit by an independent entity to examine the machines. In doing so, he asked the commissioners not to comply with the state Department of State’s recent directive to all 67 counties not to hand over their voting equipment to a third party, or they would be decertified and could not be used in the next election.

“The issue is election integrity and the confidence of the people in the future process of elections in our country,” Peternel said.

County elections officials previously said that the reason the machines would have to be decertified is because they would have left the “chain of custody” from the county and could be manipulated by a third party during the audit.

“The decertification, so you understand, of the voting machines, that’s from the state,” Irey Vaughan said. “We don’t have authority over that.”

Many people in the audience Thursday suggested that the county should decommission the electronic voting machines in favor of paper ballots that apparently would be counted by handed. The new ES&S machines were purchased for $2.8 million in 2019 and designed to keep paper receipts that are stored after the election should there need to be a recount. The county has used electronic voting equipment since 2006 when officials spent $1.8 million to purchase Diebold touch-screen machines to replace the punch card system in use since the 1980s.

Ashley Duff of Monongahela acknowledged that the county has made “positive strides” in how it conducts elections, but said she did not trust the voting machines.

“We still have much more work to do to give voters concrete assurance that their vote will be counted accurately,” Duff said while questioning the accuracy of the voting machines. “We must take the bull by the horns and address these concerns head on, with a transparent, forward-leaning approach.”

Duff said she and many others in the county support a complete audit of the voting machines “no matter the cost.”

“There is no other path that will suffice,” Duff said.

Commissioner Nick Sherman noted that Washington County took “proactive steps” to ensure there was no voter fraud, but added that he does believe there was fraud in other parts of the state.

“We were buttoned up here in Washington County,” Sherman said. “I appreciate everyone coming here. I do believe in the audit. We got to go to Allegheny County. We got to go to Philadelphia County, where the real fraud took place.”

Former president Donald Trump overwhelmingly won Washington County, but Biden racked up large vote totals in urban and suburban areas around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, helping him win Pennsylvania. There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the state.

“Audit the Vote” recently sent out a message to its followers with the contact information for the commissioners, along with the time and location of Thursday morning’s meeting. The commissioners reported that they have received about 600 emails and more than 200 phone messages in recent days from people demanding a forensic audit. Irey Vaughan said she would consider their requests and respond to each of them as time permits.

“But I promise you, I will be speaking to my colleagues about this, and the elections review committee, because the confidence of the voter and the integrity of the election process should be paramount,” Irey Vaughan said. “And I agree with you.”

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