News & Politics

State, local officials at odds over banning private election grants

State Sen. Lisa Baker at a 2019 press conference

State Sen. Lisa Baker at a 2019 press conference Commonwealth Media Services

With one eye looking back at the 2020 presidential election and the other looking toward future contests, state and local officials sparred Tuesday over the motive behind private election grants received by counties in 2020 – and whether those grants were provided with an intent to influence the 2020 presidential election. 

The state Senate State Government Committee heard testimony on legislation that would ban counties from receiving third-party grants to fund election operations, with supporters of the measure arguing that outside funding for elections could unfairly sway voter turnout. The idea received pushback from Democratic officials at the state and local levels, who said private grants served as a lifeline for counties facing new mail-in ballot mandates and pandemic-related challenges.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican from Luzerne County who is sponsoring Senate Bill 982, which would ban such private grants, said the potential impact of private election grants is “a critical challenge we must confront.”

“To me, this debate does not pivot on whether these contributions affected the outcome of the 2020 election or not. I’m not rendering judgment or making supposition on that,” Baker added. “The large and looming problem for me is prospective: If we do not close the door, these contributions will escalate from every direction.”

Baker introduced the legislation last year after learning that the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit with ties to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, distributed approximately $350 million in grants to local election offices across the U.S. as part of an effort to safely carry out elections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The grants were possible in part due to a $250 million donation from Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, though the grant program has since drawn scrutiny from Republicans, who said that the grants were distributed unevenly, with an emphasis placed on blue counties. 

“Now that the barn door’s open and the precedent is set, these private contract programs have proven a path forward for all types of businesses, political groups or, again, even those international entities, as a tool to lawfully hyper-extract a given set of votes needed to sway the outcome of a tight future election,” said state Rep. Eric Nelson, who is sponsoring a similar bill in the state House to ban private election grants. 

Nelson added: “I know we can’t change what happened in the past, but I would submit we have a responsibility to prevent election influence in the future. 

Election officials from the Pennsylvania Department of State and the Philadelphia City Commissioners refuted claims that the CTCL grants had any impact on how elections were run. Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman said the department has “serious concerns” about the bills sponsored by Baker and Nelson. 

“Both bills would further hobble county elections officials and department election staff who already work with limited resources to administer elections,” Chapman said, noting that federal funding from the CARES Act and the Help America Vote Act was not enough to help counties administer an election with new mail-in voting procedures in the middle of a pandemic. 

Chapman said that in the absence of additional state funding for elections, county election officials had to turn to other sources of funding. “Additional state funding was not made available,” Chapman said. “Instead, nonprofit organizations stepped up to fill the urgent needs of every Pennsylvania county that requested funding.”

The hearing included testimony from Todd Shepherd, a reporter with the conservative news outlet Broad + Liberty. Shepherd walked committee members through his reporting on private election funding, which found that in 2020, the Department of State initially only alerted Democratic-led counties about the availability of grant funding. 

However, Shepherd’s credibility was called into question by state Sen. Sharif Street, who noted that the outlet frequently espouses conservative views and doesn’t list its sources of funding. 

Lisa Deeley, who chairs the Philadelphia City Commissioners, also voiced her opposition to banning outside grants, stating that it would “make election officials’ lives more difficult in order to score political points among those who believe that Big Lie about 2020.”

Deeley also questioned provisions in the bill that would allow for charging any official who applies for or accepts grant money with a second-degree felony. “If Senate bill 982 were to be law, instead of being celebrated for easing the taxpayers’ burden, I would be guilty of a second-degree felony, which is just ridiculous,” Deeley said. “Governments receive grants all the time – police departments receive donations of bulletproof vests – and we should not be criminalizing effective stewardship of public resources to prove a political point.”

The hearing ultimately concluded without an opportunity for lawmakers to question testifiers, as the Senate session was about to begin just as testimony concluded. State Sen. David Argall, who chairs the committee, said he would schedule another hearing or a roundtable discussion in the future to allow lawmakers to ask questions of Tuesday’s participants.