By Justin Sweitzer
In 2020, a nonprofit known as the Center for Tech and Civic Life distributed approximately $ 350 million in grants to local election boards and offices across the United States. The organization, which was founded in 2012 to increase civic engagement, distributed this grant as part of a national effort to ensure that the November 2020 elections are held safely amid the pandemic of COVID-19.
A portion of the CTCL’s grants went to Pennsylvania, with 23 counties – and the state itself – benefiting from the organization’s election grants. But the CTCL’s links to Big Tech, coupled with questions about how Pennsylvania counties were made aware of the availability of the grants, have led some state lawmakers to ban outside election-related grants permanently.
Grants provided by the CTCL have been made available to any entity that administers elections in the country, provided the funds are used for polling station maintenance, personal protective equipment, awareness raising and l voter education, recruitment and training of election officials, and expansion of access to mail. – by voting.
CTCL’s COVID-19 response grant program, as it was known, was made possible by a donation of $ 250 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, a contribution that the executive director of CTCL, Tiana Epps-Johnson, said she has provided “hardworking election officials and a poll with the essential resources they need to safely serve every voter.” “
But while Zuckerberg’s donation – which some refer to as “Zuckerbucks” – provided an influx of money to state and local election offices, it has also angered conservatives who fear that allowing outside groups to inject money in election offices does not unduly influence the conduct of elections. .
A number of states have already decided to ban the use of these types of grants to fund election administration, with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signing a stand-alone bill banning the funding, while Georgia included a similar measure in an omnibus electoral bill passed in March. .
In Harrisburg, State Senators Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York introduced legislation prohibiting counties from accepting similar grants in the future.
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Their bill would ban the use of “private non-government money” to finance election operations. In an interview with City & State, both lawmakers expressed concerns that outside subsidies could influence the way elections are administered – and do so without much accountability.
Lawmakers referred to a recent report by Broad + Liberty, a Philadelphia-based conservative outlet, which found that former Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar initially invited only certain counties to apply for the grants. CTCL.
The State Department, however, subsequently informed all counties of the funding available after Zuckerberg’s donation was made, according to Broad + Liberty.
“The [state] the constitution is very, very clear that the conduct of free and fair elections is the responsibility of the state; it is an essential function of government. And to support that, we need to make sure that private funding doesn’t unduly compromise or influence the outcome of an election, ”said Phillips-Hill. “There is absolutely no liability with these dollars. There is no control over these organizations, and there is absolutely no consistency.
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Baker, who previously worked as a foundation director, suggested that organizations offering grants usually do so with certain expectations in mind. “When you are a funder, you have expectations. When you apply, you have reporting requirements. This money is expected to be spent.
“We have certainly seen that the [state] department weighed in with some counties that interested them. Thus, they clearly directed resources where they thought they needed to go. And so there was no consistency in that regard, ”Baker added.
Lisa Deeley, president of the city of Philadelphia commissioners, took issue with claims that subsidies to Pennsylvania counties unduly influence the conduct of the election.
“It doesn’t have any detrimental effect on the election,” Deeley told City & State. “On the contrary, it only had positive effects on the elections because it allowed us to do it earlier and provide additional access to voters.”
While the specific monies received by the counties will not be fully available until the CTCL releases its 990 annual returns, Philadelphia has received a grant worth more than $ 10 million to fund election operations in 2020. This money went to the postal ballot processing equipment, to the satellite elections. office expenses, ballot boxes, as well as training, risk premium and PPE for poll workers.
Deeley said the need for additional election funding was exacerbated by the pandemic and by Bill 77 of 2019, a new state law that first ushered in no-excuse postal voting in Pennsylvania.
Deeley said the CTCL grant – which she personally sought out – was a “lifeline” and that without it the city would have been in dire straits last November.
“I think it’s likely that we would still be counting the votes,” she said. “The city was not able to give us the money we needed.
As for Baker and Phillips-Hill’s bill, the measure was officially introduced this month and referred to the state government Senate committee. A similar measure was approved by State House lawmakers with a vote of 113-90. During a House debate, House state government committee chair Seth Grove criticized the way funding has been dispersed in Pennsylvania. “It was used to ‘get the vote out’ in central areas of this state,” Grove said. ” It’s reality. This kind of manipulation cannot continue in this Commonwealth. “
A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf said the legislation is “Republicans’ latest effort to create barriers to voting and attack fair elections and the dedicated workers and volunteers of our local communities who administer the elections.”
Deeley believes the move would prove not only detrimental – but devastating – for counties tasked with holding elections.
“It would have a devastating impact on elections statewide,” she said. “Why wouldn’t someone want to save taxpayer money? I am confused by this. Are we now failing to save taxpayer dollars? “
Justin Sweitzer is a reporter for City & State Pa., Where this story first appeared.