Here is a quick down-and-dirty summary of our recent reporting on election grants in Pennsylvania, and why you should care.
Regular readers of Broad + Liberty have seen several articles over the past year about the suspiciously partisan activity of the Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) and its private election administration grants to Pennsylvania counties in 2020.
Like any good investigative story, it has developed rapidly, taking unexpected twists and turns as our head of news unearthed new facts. The most coherent overview can be found here, in Broad + Liberty Chief Investigative Reporter Todd Shepherd’s recent testimony before the state Senate.
READ MORE — Terry Tracy: Pennsylvania is still a battleground
For those who don’t feel like listening to the audio, or for anyone that has been following the story all year but is losing the thread, allow me to briefly summarize everything that has happened since we broke the story in April 2021.
In our initial reporting, after digging into the $20.8 million in election grants that CTCL issued to Pennsylvania counties, we found a tremendous discrepancy in allocations between Republican- and Democrat-voting counties. In fact, the origins of the funding raised so many practical and ethical questions at the time that even Democrat-controlled Bucks County refused the grants outright due to lack of evidence that they were truly nonpartisan.
Emails unveiled through Right-to-Know requests submitted to Delaware County Council revealed communications between Delaware County Democrats and the Pennsylvania Office of the Governor. These emails appeared to show suspicious and secretive behavior surrounding the grants, which led us to believe that ranking government officials in Pennsylvania may have been purposely ignoring the biased distribution of the funds.
The inflection point: in an incredible display of arrogance and disregard of process, County Councilwoman Christine Reuther wrote, “I will deal with the blowback” — referring to potential concern raised by her own solicitor about the grants coming from an overtly left-wing organization. For the good of our democracy, we hope our reporting is only the beginning of the blowback.
Speaking of Reuther, upon receiving the grant, she worked on a press release, the aim of which, according to emails from a consultant, was to use the Covid-19 pandemic to “frame the award smartly.” The press release did just that, calling CTCL “nonpartisan,” even though we know from her emails that Reuther views it as left-leaning.
In other Right-to-Know emails, we found that CTCL had most of their administrative work done by outside contractors or groups. Many of the consultants that dealt with the administration of these grants were extremely partisan and publicly aligned with high-profile Democratic political campaigns and causes from across the nation.
Not every Broad + Liberty story gets cited by the House and Senate, or makes national headlines, but every one brings us closer to our goal of honesty and transparency in the regions and state that we love so dearly.
Upon reading our reporting, many in the state Senate and House believe that, if these actions are not illegal, they are at minimum taking advantage of legal loopholes in untested pandemic-era policies intended to ensure equal access to the vote despite a national public health emergency.
There was a push both in chambers to make private funding of election administration illegal in the future, and to protect fair and just elections more broadly. Our reporting was cited by both the PA House and Senate in calls for reform.
Broad + Liberty’s Todd Shepherd testified before the State Government Affairs Committee on his reporting. After his testimony, SB 982 passed in the upper chamber with a bipartisan, veto-proof majority. Indeed, even some of those most skeptical initially voted in favor or reform after Shepherd’s presentation on the matter.
The story is not likely over, as we are still continuing to investigate CTCL and the emails of elected public officials beyond our initial scope. Recently we found references to a “Cities Project” that appears linked to CTCL, but no clear indicator of what it is and how money is being spent on it.
The state Senate bill, which will ban state employees or counties from taking election grants from outside organizations, will have a significant effect on our state for years to come. Mark Zuckerberg and others who fund CTCL do not have Pennsylvania roots, and likely do not have our state’s best interest in mind.
Our elections should be by and for the people of Pennsylvania. Furthermore, elections should not be bought and paid for. Sure, some personal liberties are expressed through campaign donations, but attempts to bypass the rules to make large donations though the guise of a “nonpartisan” organization is dangerous and disingenuous. The bill’s bipartisan 37-12 passing vote demonstrates that this investigation was never some agendized election witch hunt: senators on both sides of the aisle, who rarely agree on a thing, saw this issue as an example of a wrong that needed to be made right, and a chance to bring fairer elections to Pennsylvania.
READ MORE — Mysterious “Cities Project” appeared twice in Zuckerberg election-grants push
Beyond the bill, the reporting itself will have a positive impact on politics in Pennsylvania. Government officials, partisan consultants and CTCL have been put on notice. Democracy functions better when the “fourth estate” provides the final check in our system of checks and balances and keeps our politics honest and transparent.
I believe Christine Reuther said she would take the blowback because she didn’t think there would be any blowback. That kind of bluster from politicians who espouse a certain ideological disposition are rarely held to account. For too long, our local media outlets have been complicit, looking the other way on these sorts of backroom deals that our region’s liberal establishment uses to put their thumbs on the scales of democracy. It has gotten to the point where politicians are used to believing that no one will audit their emails, ask them the tough questions, or expose their hypocrisy.
When I co-founded Broad + Liberty in 2019, it was precisely to combat this problem. If every media outlet in the state tells only one side of the story, how can the people stay informed? Our solution was to cover, in a fair and balanced way, issues that Pennsylvanians care about but the legacy media doesn’t, to provide an opinion page that could be a platform for voices that exist outside of the progressive echo chamber, and to do serious the investigative reporting that the mainstream media is afraid, or unwilling to.
Not every Broad + Liberty story gets cited by the House and Senate, or makes national headlines, but every one brings us closer to our goal of honesty and transparency in the regions and state that we love so dearly. As big of a win as this was for free elections, it is only one front in the war for a freer and more prosperous Pennsylvania.
Terry Tracy is the President and CEO of Broad + Liberty. @BroadandLiberty