GOP lawmakers question private donations to counties ahead of election | News

GOP lawmakers question private donations to counties ahead of election | News

HARRISBURG – Twenty-three of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties got funding from a non-profit organization largely funded by a donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to help cover the increased costs associated with running an election during a pandemic.

Republicans say there’s been little transparency about how the Center for Tech and Civic Life decided which counties should get grants, and a trio of lawmakers have announced plans to bar similar donations ahead of future elections.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life – largely funded through donations from Zuckerberg – provided $350 million to help local municipalities, counties and states deal with the increased costs required to deal with the deluge of mail-in ballots and make other changes intended to better protect election workers and the public.

The Department of State got a little over $2.4 million from the non-profit, and the 23 counties got about another $15 million, lawmakers said.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life didn’t respond to a request for information about how much was allocated to each county that received funding from the group in Pennsylvania. On its website, the group said that grants range started at $5,000, with a $19 million grant to New York City being the largest allocation. Philadelphia got $10 million to help run its election from the organization.

“In normal years, we aren’t a grant-making organization, but when election officials tell us what they need, we listen. In 2020, amid a pandemic and unprecedented financial strain, what they needed most was funding,” the Center for Tech and Civic Life said in announcing the program.

But Republicans say that there’s not enough transparency about who provides funding to the organization or how it decided to spend money where it did.

Last week, three Republican state lawmakers announced they intend to introduce legislation that would bar private nonprofit organizations from funneling dollars to county governments.

State Rep. James Struzzi, R-Indiana – who joined state Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, and state Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, in announcing the bill – said on Friday that he was surprised to learn that private organizations were allowed to make such donations.

“There is a gap in the process if they have to rely on private money to run an election,” he said. “That flies in the face of election integrity. Not to say they did it for any untoward ends, but it does make you scratch your head.”

Counties that received funding from the organization were Allegheny, Armstrong, Berks, Centre, Chester, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Juniata, Lancaster, Lehigh, Luzerne, Mercer, Mifflin, Monroe, Montgomery, Northumberland, Philadelphia, Pike, Somerset, Venango, Wayne and York.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf, said the governor would be opposed to the legislation proposed by the Republican lawmakers.

“The CTCL funding last year was used for non-partisan purposes, including most importantly purchasing protective equipment that helped keep poll workers safe in an unprecedented election year,” she said. “Instead of making it more difficult for the counties to obtain resources they need to administer elections, we should focus our efforts on commonsense election improvements such as allowing pre-canvassing of ballots, which is supported by the state county commissioners association and all 67 counties.”

The cost of running elections is largely borne by county governments. The CARES Act passed last year did provide federal funding that trickled down to the counties.

The CARES Act provided $400 million to help counties prepare to run their elections during the pandemic, but an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that the funding would be far short of the actual need. The Brennan Center estimated that the actual increased costs would be $4 billion.

The CTCL grants far exceeded what any of the counties got in CARES Act funding for elections.

Philadelphia got $753,000 in CARES Act funding for elections. Delaware County got $282,000. Centre County got $77,000.

Ellen Lyon, a spokeswoman for the Department of State, said state officials encouraged counties to seek grant funding from CTCL. State officials believe that every county that applied got funding, she said.

The state used its grant to buy personal protective equipment, to buy equipment like printers, barcode scanners and tablets, to cover the cost of providing additional help desk support and to add bandwidth to the state Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, Lyon said.

“The grant was not used for influencing the outcome of the election in any way,” she said.

Northumberland County got just over $44,000 from the CTCL grant program, said Nathan Savidge, election director for the county. Just over $25,000 of that went toward hiring temporary workers for the election, and the rest went toward the cost of buying ballots and envelopes, he said.

Savidge said that, when the state legalized no-excuse mail-in voting, it didn’t increase funding to cover the county’s increased costs. Getting the grant from the nonprofit saved the county from having to fully absorb that cost, he said.

“If the state doesn’t want us to take private money, they can act on it,” he said. “They can block (private donations), but then they should fund it.”

In testimony during a March budget hearing, Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said that state officials recognized that the counties were being asked to absorb increased costs to run the elections.

“I, like other election officials all over the country, are very thankful that the public understood the importance of supporting local election officials,” Degraffenreid said. “Those funds were used for PPE. To make sure there were enough poll workers. These were things that were necessary to conduct the election.”

At that hearing, state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, said that the donations don’t seem to meet the same transparency standards as campaign contributions and lobbying spending.

“We have a governor who has a gift ban in place. I can’t even offer you a bottle of water out of basic hospitality when you come to meet me in my office because of concern over asserting too much influence,” she said to Degraffenreid. “There is a concern because we now have counties, and even our state, accepting large sums of money from nonprofits, and we’re just trying to understand that.”

Republicans had sought to stop the grant funding from CTCL even before the election. In September, 14 Republicans – lawmakers and candidates – filed a federal lawsuit seeking to bar Philadelphia, Delaware and Centre counties from accepting the CTCL grants.

U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann on Oct. 21 dismissed that lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to sue because they’d failed to demonstrate how they would be harmed by the counties accepting the donations.

In his order, Brann noted that, while the lawsuit alleged that the grants were being directed to areas “with overwhelmingly progressive voters,” that doesn’t appear to be accurate based on the list of counties that CTCL has said received grants. Of the 23 counties that received funding from the group, 13 backed President Donald Trump in the November election, according to state election results.

The Associated Press reported in September that the $10 million CTCL grant allowed Philadelphia to “double its election budget and quadruple its mail-ballot processing capacity.”

Delaware County got a $2.2 million grant from CTCL, and Centre County got almost $864,000, according to documents filed as part of that federal lawsuit.

According to the court documents, Philadelphia said it would use its grant to spend $5.5 million on ballot processing equipment, $2.2 million to establish satellite offices for in-person voting, $1.3 million on other costs associated with in-person voting, $552,000 on drop boxes for voters to deposit mail-in ballots; and $370,000 on printing postage.

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