General Assembly

Unfair or fair game? The economic gains of private election grants.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill Doug Gross/Senate Republican Communications

In 2020, a nonprofit known as the Center for Tech and Civic Life distributed roughly $350 million in grant funds to local election boards and offices across the U.S. The organization, which was founded in 2012 to increase civic engagement, doled out this grant money as part of a nationwide effort to make sure the November 2020 election was carried out safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some of the CTCL’s grant money made its way to Pennsylvania, with 23 counties – and the state itself – taking advantage of the organization’s election grants. But the CTCL’s connections to Big Tech, coupled with questions about how Pennsylvania counties were notified about the availability of the grants, has some state lawmakers looking to ban outside election-related grants for good.

The grants provided by the CTCL were made available to any entity that administers elections in the country, as long as the funds were used for polling place maintenance, personal protective equipment, voter outreach and education, poll worker recruitment and training and expanded access to mail-in voting. 

The CTCL’s COVID-19 Response Grant program, as it was known, was possible thanks to a $250 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, a contribution that CTCL Executive Director Tiana Epps-Johnson said provided “election officials and poll workers with the critical resources they need to safely serve every voter.”

But while Zuckerberg’s donation – which some refer to as “Zuckerbucks” – provided an influx of cash to state and local election offices, it has also rankled conservatives who fear that allowing outside groups to pump money into election offices could improperly sway how elections are run. 

number of states have already moved to ban these types of grants from being used to fund election administration, with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signing a standalone bill to prohibit the funding, while Georgia included a similar measure in an omnibus election bill passed in March. 

In Harrisburg, State Sens. Lisa Baker and Kristin Phillips-Hill have introduced legislation to prohibit counties from accepting similar grants in the future. Their proposed legislation would ban the use of “private, non-government money” from funding election operations. In an interview with City & State, the two lawmakers expressed concerns that outside grants could influence how elections are administered – and do so without much accountability. 

The lawmakers referred to a recent report from Broad + Liberty, a Philadelphia-based conservative news outlet, which found that former Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar initially only invited select counties to apply for the CTCL grants. 

The Department of State, however, later notified all counties of the available grant funding once the Zuckerberg donation was made, according to Broad + Liberty

“The [state] constitution is very, very clear that the conduct of free and fair elections is the responsibility of the state; it is a core function of government. And in order to hold that we have to make sure that private funding in no way undermines or unduly influences the outcome of an election,” Phillips-Hill said. “There's absolutely no accountability with these dollars. There's no vetting of these organizations, and there's absolutely no uniformity.”

Baker, who previously worked as a foundation director, suggested that organizations providing grants typically do so with certain expectations in mind. “When you're a grant funder, you have expectations. When you apply, you have requirements for reporting. There's an expectation of how that money is going to be spent.”

“We certainly saw that the [state] department weighed in with certain counties they were interested in. So, they clearly steered the resources where they thought they should go. And so there was no uniformity in that regard,” Baker added.

Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, contested claims that grants provided to Pennsylvania counties would improperly influence how elections are run. 

“It has no nefarious effect on the election,” Deeley told City & State. “If anything, it had nothing but positive effects on the election because it enabled us to get done sooner and to provide additional access to voters.”

While the specific sums counties received won’t be fully available until the CTCL releases its annual 990 filings, Philadelphia received a grant worth more than $10 million to fund election operations in 2020. That money went toward mail-in ballot processing equipment, satellite election office costs, ballot drop boxes, as well as training, hazard pay and PPE for poll workers. 

Deeley said the need for additional election funding was exacerbated by the pandemic and by Act 77 of 2019, a new state law that ushered in no-excuse mail-in voting in Pennsylvania for the first time. 

Deeley said the CTCL grant – which she personally sought out – was a “lifesaver” and that without it, the city would have been in dire straits come last November.

“I think that it's likely that we would still be counting votes,” she said. “The city was in no financial position to give us the money that we needed.”

As for the bill from Baker and Phillips-Hill, the measure was formally introduced this month and referred to the Senate State Government Committee. A similar measure has been approved by lawmakers in the state House with a 113-90 vote. During a debate on the House floor, House State Government Committee Chair Seth Grove criticized how the funding was dispersed in Pennsylvania. “It was used to do ‘get out the vote’ drives in core areas of this state,” Grove said. “That's the reality. That kind of manipulation cannot continue in this commonwealth.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf said the legislation is “the latest effort by Republicans to create barriers to voting and attack fair elections and the dedicated workers and volunteers in our local communities who administer elections.”

Deeley thinks the measure would prove not just detrimental – but devastating – to counties tasked with running elections. 

“It would have a devastating impact on elections in the entire state,” she said. “Why would anybody not want to save taxpayers money? I'm baffled by that. Are we now in the business of not saving taxpayer money?”