“Elections shall be free and equal.”

That’s what Article I, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution declares.

That bedrock of democracy was obviously ignored with the recent discovery that millions of private dollars were directed to only a few of the Commonwealth’s counties for the stated purpose of helping to fund 2020 election operations.

A hearing held by the Senate Special Committee on Election Integrity earlier this year initially brought to light that, in addition to using taxpayer dollars, Philadelphia County received a private grant for the election. The grant was provided by the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). At the time, Philadelphia City Commissioners were unable to provide information on who funded this non-profit. This immediately raised a question about third party funding. There must be parameters and transparency surrounding each and every election.

After further examination, we learned that approximately $22 million came the Keystone State’s way from CTCL, which is in fact a Chicago, Illinois-based election reform advocacy group formed in 2012 – bankrolled, prior to the 2020 election, to the tune of more than $300 million by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. Zuckerberg is already under intense scrutiny for his failure to flag posts that represented a threat to democracy. This funding constitutes something more dangerous – a secretive effort to influence the outcome of an election.

Philadelphia, which had a $21 million elections operations budget for 2020, received $10 million of that $22 million, with nearly $8 million of the remaining money going to Philadelphia’s collar counties: Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. The other $3 million was scattered among at least 17 counties, though the six predominantly rural counties receiving funds got a combined total of less than $150,000. The rest of the state’s 67 counties got nothing.

Looking at those dollar amounts on a per-registered-voter basis, those rural counties, combined, averaged about 68 cents per registered voter while Philadelphia and its collar counties averaged $4.58 per registered voter.

Those rural counties, combined, averaged about 68 cents per registered voter while Philadelphia and its collar counties average $4.58 per registered voter.

This violates every common understanding of fairness, equity, and nonpartisanship in the conduct of elections.  

It’s also clear, based on emails sent from the Office of Governor Tom Wolf and from the Pennsylvania Department of State, several of the recipient counties – those more politically aligned with Democratic Governor Wolf’s administration, and where there are high concentrations of Democratic voters – were selectively alerted to the upcoming availability of this money and apparently aided in the process to secure the funding before the majority of county election officials knew about it. 

Money distributed in such an inequitable manner creates the potential to influence who casts ballots, as well as how they are cast, collected, and counted. 

The duty of overseeing election operations rests with our Commonwealth and each of our 67 counties.  

Private organizations are not held to the same standards or checks-and-balances as our counties and their election employees. Organizations like CTCL, and the others employed with the funds that were distributed, are certainly not accountable to Pennsylvania voters and taxpayers.

READ MORE — Former Sec. of State Boockvar and Gov. Wolf staffer helped selectively invite counties for election grants

Outside groups, regardless of their motivations, cannot be afforded an opportunity to use their financial resources to influence election officials, policy, and procedures, during the conduct of election operations.  

While entities across the political spectrum can, and do, engage in constructive efforts to educate voters as provided for in our federal and state Constitutions, the process of carrying out an election should be funded entirely by the government, so there is no question about the motives behind the distribution and use of money.

In the near future, we will be introducing legislation in the Senate to prohibit outside groups from contributing to election operations.  The Constitution makes clear the conduct of free and fair elections is a core function of state government. To uphold this, we must ensure private funding does not influence or undermine any election at any level.

Lisa Baker is a Pennsylvania State Senator representing the 20th district. Kristin Phillips-Hill is a Pennsylvania State Senator representing the 28th district. 

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