Pennsylvania House bill takes aim at private election grants

Lehigh County workers count ballots as vote counting in the general election continues Nov. 5, 2020, in Allentown.

HARRISBURG — In 2020, the Center for Tech and Civic Life granted $15 million to a few select counties in Pennsylvania to assist in election administration amid the pandemic.

But for some lawmakers, the nonprofit – flush from a $250 million donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – crosses an ethical line.

“I first learned of this practice during budget hearings and am appalled by the act,” said Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Struzzi, one of three co-sponsors on a forthcoming measure that would ban private election grants. “Sadly, this activity is permitted thanks to a loophole in current law but is now being addressed through our legislation that will seal this gap shut for good.”

Thirteen counties across Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia received the private grants last year after challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic forced local officials to burn through their annual budgets long before the Nov. 3 election.

In an interview with APM Reports, Chester County’s acting Director of Voting Services Bill Turner described the $2.5 million grant his office received as “a lifesaver” that he used to fund 14 drop boxes, body cameras and extra poll workers.

“Honestly, I don’t know what we would have done without it,” he said.

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CTCL donated $350 million to more than 2,500 jurisdictions across the country for election administration after the federal government set aside just $400 million for the cause – far short of the $4 billion some analysts said was necessary.

The organization said any election department could apply, and grants ranged from $5,000 to $19 million.

But Struzzi said that CTCL’s actions may violate the 14th amendment because “all eligible voters must be given equal access to their right to vote.” Awarding grants to some counties, and not all, he said, was unfair.

“This is an affront to taxpayers and an assault on election integrity and must be stopped,” he said.

The bill would require private donors to send money directly to the Department of State, where officials would distribute the funds evenly across the counties. It would also ensure the department’s advertising and promotion budget for voting services would be invested equally. Reps. Clint Owlett, R-Wellsboro, and Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, joined Struzzi in sponsoring the proposal.

“It is deeply disturbing to me, and to many people I represent, that outside organizations were permitted to ‘invest’ in our elections in this way,” Owlett said. “As we work to restore the people’s faith in our election processes, eliminating this type of grant funding from outsiders should be a top priority.”

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