Pennsylvania Democratic lawmakers failed to pass a series of amendments Monday to weaken a state House bill that would restrict the ability of private third parties to fund election administration. 

State Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Greensburg) is sponsoring the bill largely in reaction to the role that the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) played in election operations in numerous Pennsylvania counties last year. Grants bestowed by CTCL in 2020, which mostly aided Democrat-leaning counties, were funded significantly by Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg.

Nelson’s legislation would require any private entity desiring to contribute money to the election process in Pennsylvania to donate directly to the Pennsylvania Department of State, which would then distribute the money based on counties’ voting-age populations. 

All amendments offered Monday failed by a vote of 112 to 90, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Democrats opposed. 

One amendment offered by Rep. Ben Sanchez (D-Abington) would have removed the restriction on private donations from the bill outright and instead required certain information pertaining to third-party donations would be required to appear in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, a government periodical providing updates on government action. After the name of the donating organization, the amount the entity has contributed and the specific purposes toward which the contribution is intended would be disclosed, public discussion would then follow and the county board of elections would take a vote on whether to accept the funds.

“If we want to actually be able to hold elections, we really only have two choices,” Sanchez said. “We could fully fund our election processes or continue to accept private donations in a transparent manner. Limiting options of resources to the state and counties to support elections is just plain foolish when elections are not adequately funded.”

Nelson strongly disagreed with Sanchez that third-party funding as it was practiced last year benefited Pennsylvania localities equitably. The Republican pointed out that Sanchez’s county (Montgomery) received an especially generous $1.2 million for election administration in 2020. 

An investigation by the Philadelphia-based Broad & Liberty revealed that Montgomery County and other left-leaning jurisdictions were selectively invited by then Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D) to participate in CTCL’s 2020 efforts. The publication also found that CTCL funds that did go to GOP-leaning counties were far less generous on a per voter basis.

Nelson also noted that CTCL contracts required counties to adhere to certain requirements if they wished to use CTCL funds. In particular, the Republican mentioned a request that Montgomery County increase the number of absentee-ballot drop boxes. 

“The actions of this county and the actions of multiple other counties are exactly why we have to prevent private funding,” Nelson said. “Private funding means private contracts and private entities—in this case, the good gentleman Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook—outlining specific details of how elections would be run in our districts.”

Rep. Scott Conklin (D-State College) offered a pair of amendments to weaken Nelson’s bill, one of which would have required county voter “outreach” to be “fully reimbursed” by the state. 

Nelson called Conklin’s amendment “essentially Willy Wonka’s golden ticket” to fund “any election cost under any parameters that the counties would have.”

Another amendment from Rep. Pam DeLissio (D-Philadelphia) sought to require the Pennsylvania Department of State to study voting wait times and polling-place accessibility. Nelson objected on the basis that certain counties have not cooperated with the executive branch on election-integrity in the past, especially with regard to a 2019 audit of the state’s voter-registration record keeping.

A final proposed amendment by Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Norristown) sought to empower the Pennsylvania executive branch to prevent efforts such as those by pro-Trump legislators to litigate against the certification of some states’ electoral votes after the 2020 election. Nelson countered that such action as Bradford would have asked the executive branch to take would be beyond its proper purview. 

Nelson’s bill awaits further action by the House. 

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].