Republican legislation to stop private organizations from donating selectively to Pennsylvania localities’ election activities passed the state House of Representatives along party lines Monday. 

State Reps. Eric Nelson (R-Greensburg), Clint Owlett (R-Wellsboro) and James Struzzi (R-Indiana) offered the bill after revelations that the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) issued grants to counties last year, with much more money reaching Democrat-heavy areas. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan contributed $350 million to CTCL in 2020. Former Obama Foundation Fellow Tiana Epps-Johnson serves as the organization’s executive director.

Of the roughly $22 million the CTCL bestowed on Pennsylvania election offices, $19 million went to Democratic-leaning counties and $1.4 million of it went to Republican-leaning ones. According to an analysis by the Philadelphia-based Broad & Liberty, funds allocated by the nonprofit were also lopsided in favor of majority-Democrat locales on a per-voter basis. 

The highest-funded Democratic-leaning counties and their respective per-voter amounts were Philadelphia with $8.87, Centre with $7.70, Chester with $6.73, Delaware with $5.17 and Lehigh with $3.06. GOP-leaning counties receiving the highest awards per-voter were Lancaster with $1.34, York with $1.03, Juniata with $0.78, Luzerne with $0.78 and Northumberland with $0.78. 

To backers of the House legislation, this imbalance indicated a desire by CTCL to aid election efforts in liberal strongholds while leaving most conservative areas to rely only on public dollars. Bolstering their point has been reporting showing that the nonprofit, in communication with the offices of Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D), invited Democrat-heavy southeastern counties to apply for grants weeks before contacting other counties.

“I think it was pretty well established that the lure of private money has seeped into our election system, and it must be stopped,” Eric Nelson lamented as he urged colleagues to “put an end to private, corporate interests in our election system.” 

Next to speak was Rep. Scott Conklin (D-State College), who rhetorically joined Eric Nelson in deploring private money in elections. He went on to extraneously call for prohibiting candidate committees from running on private donations. 

“There is nothing that has destroyed the election system in this state more than corporate money,” Conklin said, nonetheless urging representatives to oppose Eric Nelson’s bill.

Conklin wasn’t the only Democrat to make an unrelated plea yesterday for campaign-finance restrictions in denouncing the Eric Nelson measure. 

“I want taxpayer dollars to fund our campaign efforts,” Rep. Napoleon Nelson (D-Cheltenham) [no relation to Eric Nelson] declared. “But that’s not apparently what we’re interested in doing in this chamber.”

Other bill opponents insisted that CTCL money ultimately went toward ensuring that poor Pennsylvania residents were able to vote.

“If we can help a poor person vote, then we are having that free and fair election” that the legislation’s sponsors desire, Rep. Dan Miller (D-Mt. Lebanon) said. He admitted later in his remarks that CTCL allotment in 2020 was “not across the board and you can pick and choose.”

Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) made a similar argument about poverty and region, insinuating that the bill’s sponsors were being bigoted when they declaimed against grants going to some local jurisdictions and not others.

“People are upset that we made it easier for you to vote,” Harris said, addressing those watching the broadcast of the House proceedings. “Pay attention to what was being said…. Today’s term was ‘certain people.’ Certain people. We don’t want to get out their votes.”

When Harris suggested CTCL grants helped “you” to vote, he wasn’t talking about Forest County, nearly the poorest county in the Keystone state which received no money from the organization. A number of other of Pennsylvania’s poorest counties, including Clearfield, McKean and Lawrence, received no funds from the nonprofit. 

Struzzi, who represents the also relatively poor Indiana County which received no CTCL funds, blasted the asymmetry in terms of which counties got grants.

“It is unacceptable, it is fundamentally wrong and it needs to stop today,” he said.

The bill now awaits action by the Pennsylvania Senate.

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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].