Mark Zuckerberg helped some Pa. counties survive the 2020 election. Right-wing lawmakers say that was unfair.
More than 20 Pennsylvania counties turned to private philanthropy when it became apparent the Republican-led General Assembly wasn’t going to help them cover COVID-related expenses.
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — As coronavirus cases rose and Pennsylvania counties were flooded with millions of mail ballot applications last fall, election directors were desperately searching for ways to help pay for the extraordinary costs brought on by the pandemic.
They turned to private philanthropy when it became apparent the Republican-led General Assembly wasn’t going to help them cover such COVID-related expenses as sneeze guards, hazard pay for poll workers, or more staff to handle the deluge of mail ballots from voters who didn’t want to risk exposure by voting in person.
Now, some of those same GOP lawmakers are moving to ban local election administrators from applying for private donations.
All 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties were invited to apply for a Center for Tech and Civic Life grant after Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated an initial $250 million to the nonprofit. Of the counties that applied — including 13 that former President Donald Trump won in 2020 — all received what they requested or more.
“We had no issues with receiving those dollars or using those dollars,” Juniata County Commissioner Alice Gray, a Republican, told Spotlight PA and Votebeat. Her county — which Trump won with 80% of the vote — received $11,364 to spend on poll workers, cleaning supplies, and temporary staff.
“[Voters] were being kept safe,” Gray said. “Safety was the primary goal.”
Experts and local officials say the issue underscores the need for the state and federal governments to step up and help fund election departments that have been battered as the voting process has become more complex and expensive.
State lawmakers offered no financial help last year for COVID-related election expenses. Congress, meanwhile, allocated $14 million for the Pennsylvania Department of State to spend on election-related costs through the CARES Act, which amounted to $1.60 per registered Pennsylvania voter.
But a contingent of right-wing Republicans says the grants were fundamentally unfair because Democratic-leaning counties got more money. Election directors in those areas used those funds to offer voters additional ways to cast a ballot, such as by opening satellite offices and making drop boxes available.
“I just felt, ethically, it was disturbing to me that the private grant distribution was happening and it was not happening evenly between counties,” said Rep. Eric Nelson (R., Westmoreland), who, with several other state House lawmakers, unsuccessfully sued three majority-Democrat counties last fall in an attempt to block them from accepting or spending the grant money.
Nelson, who signed a letter asking Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to reject the state’s electors for President Joe Biden, said prohibiting counties from accepting outside grant money is one way to restore voter confidence and bring integrity back to elections.
With two other Republicans, he plans to introduce legislation that would require any philanthropic donations earmarked for election administration to be funneled through the Department of State, which would distribute that money among all 67 counties based on voting-age population.
In a statement, the Center for Tech and Civic Life said it is a “nonpartisan organization backed by Republicans, Democrats, and nonpartisan officials,” and noted that all election offices were eligible to apply for grants.
“Private funding is used to supplement a variety of government services where there are funding shortfalls, including schools and libraries,” executive director Tiana Epps-Johnson said by email. “We hope that as states consider the issue of private funding, they solve the real long-standing problem, which is making sure that election departments are fully funded so they are able to deliver a professional, inclusive, secure voting process for all of their voters.”
Republican Al Schmidt, one of three commissioners tasked with administering elections in Philadelphia, echoed that statement.
“On the one hand, [lawmakers] won’t help fund the counties to do their job, which is to make sure eligible voters’ votes get counted,” he said. “But on the other hand, they don’t want anyone else to fund it, either.”
A ‘blessing’ at a ‘crucial time’
Pennsylvania counties and the Department of State received nearly $25 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which allowed election administrators in all 50 states to apply.
The Department of State received an additional $13 million from another nonprofit Zuckerberg donated to, The Center for Election Innovation & Research, to spend on voter education.
Of the 23 counties that received CTCL funding, a majority of voters in 13 picked Trump in 2020. Those counties received, on average, about $1 per registered voter, while 10 counties Biden won received, on average, about $5 per registered voter.
Philadelphia and its collar counties, as well as Allegheny County, received the most funding.
In post-election reports submitted to CTCL, county election directors repeatedly thanked the organization, saying the funds were a “blessing” and a “great benefit” that came at a “crucial time.”
“We would have had to go to county taxpayers several times without this,” Erie County Executive Director Kathy Dahlkemper wrote. “It permitted us to build capacity for the next five years.
In Pennsylvania, elections are largely paid for and run by the counties, and county election directors and commissioners repeatedly asked for more financial resources during House State Government Committee election oversight hearings held earlier this year.
“Private money was never meant to be a long-term fix to what has been decades of underfunding election administration,” said Jennifer Morrell, a former local election official in Colorado and Utah and a partner at the Elections Group. “It was a Band-Aid to get us through a really difficult, challenging year.”
The bulk of the funds were spent on equipment to help process mail ballots — high-speed scanners, on-demand ballot printers, envelope openers — and on temporary staff for the same purpose. The grants were also used for drop boxes, poll worker training and recruitment, cleaning supplies, satellite office rentals, and personal protective equipment.
At least one county said that without the grant money to purchase equipment, workers wouldn’t have been able to finish counting ballots by the end of election night.
And although many of the expenses were unique to the pandemic and likely won’t be needed in the future, local officials said they anticipate higher costs in future years, including to recruit poll workers, something several counties struggled with during the May primary.
Many expenses related to mail voting are also still unknown, as it’s hard to predict how many people will vote this way in the years to come. And officials are preparing for costs to rise with any changes legislators make to the Election Code.
“We are beyond the circumstance where election officials can do more with less,” said Matthew Weil, the director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “They are scraping at the bottom.”
Nelson, the Republican lawmaker, said he took particular issue with the conditions attached to the Center for Tech and Civic Life’s grant money.
Each county was required to submit a “Safe Voting Plan” that outlined how much money it needed and how that money would be spent. Counties received the money with the understanding that it would be spent on the things outlined in their plans, according to contracts reviewed by Spotlight PA and Votebeat.
Philadelphia, which received $10 million from CTCL, submitted a plan saying it was “committed to working to secure” more than 800 polling places on Election Day, and CTCL said if that goal wasn’t achieved, commissioners would be required to provide a rationale for why the city had fewer than 800 polling places.
Nelson said that meant strings were attached, which sets a bad precedent.
“Imagine,” Nelson said, attempting a comparison during a House State Government Committee meeting, “if the NRA shows up before an election with $2 million and a private contract that will outline how Westmoreland County is going to run their election?”
But Schmidt, the Republican commissioner from Philadelphia, said the plan was always to open more polling places after the city limited the number of sites for the 2020 primary due to the pandemic.
“At the end of the day, we did nothing to distort the outcome of the turnout in Philadelphia or anything like that. It was about helping us do our job,” Schmidt said.
Nelson said he doesn’t want to ban private donations altogether as other Republican legislatures have done. Instead, he wants the funding distribution to be overseen by the Department of State, which under his proposal would be tasked with dispersing money to all 67 counties evenly based on their voting-age population. The department would also be “prevented from accepting any funding unless it is free from any policy-oriented conditions or restrictions,” according to a memo Nelson released seeking support from his colleagues.
“Consistency across the state of Pennsylvania in how we approach elections is extremely important,” Nelson said, adding he heard from constituents who were upset about the “inequitable distribution of funds.”
But because counties set their own budgets and have varying tax bases, funding for elections has never been and will never be uniform, Schmidt said.
“The solution could possibly be that the other … counties should’ve sought CTCL funding and be reaching out to every possible source of funding they could get to help their voters vote,” he said.
State and federal lawmakers could also include funding for local election offices in their budgets, he said: “There’s nothing that stops the state from better funding elections.”
Pennsylvania lawmakers are expected to reveal their proposed budget in June, and Nelson said he was “fairly confident” it would include additional dollars for local election departments.
Rep. Seth Grove, the Republican chair of the state House committee that considers election bills, acknowledged in a recently published report that Act 77, which created no-excuse mail voting in 2019, “burdened counties with an unsustainable election system, both financially and practically.”
“Easing Act 77′s administrative and financial burden on counties should be at the forefront of improvements to the Election Code,” Grove wrote.
Nelson said he hoped Grove’s proposed election changes, which are expected to be unveiled soon, would also include reforms that would reduce the cost of running elections. Several conservative GOP members have filed bills seeking to end voting by mail, which would save counties money in postage, printing and mailing costs, staffing, and equipment.
Grove did not respond to a request for comment, but he described mail ballots as popular to The Inquirer and said mail voting is “not going away.”
Morrell, from the Elections Group, said states that have implemented universal mail voting have seen savings in the long run because they’ve been able to reduce costs associated with opening polling locations.
“That’s like sticking your head in the sand,” Morrell said about the proposal to eliminate mail voting. “If you want a majority of the electorate to participate, then you do need to fund the things you neglected to fund for years.”
And while there’s a third option for paying for elections — counties can raise taxes with voter approval — many officials are hesitant to do so, especially when they already have to compete for funds with public works, human services, and other county departments.
“I think we’ve all realized now [election administration has] got to be prioritized more than it has been,” Morrell said.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE... If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.