Despite widespread allegations of fraud after the 2020 election in Pennsylvania, I feel confident that fraudulent votes did not decide the election’s outcome. On the other hand, I can say with confidence that the election in my home state was not conducted fairly.
Through a series of open records requests, Broad + Liberty, a media outlet I helped found, discovered that the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) targeted counties that vote Democrat with their election grants. Not only that, but officials at the highest levels of Pennsylvania’s state government — including the then-secretary of state, the person in charge of overseeing the election in Pennsylvania — played a role in the effort to get these private funds to Democrat-leaning counties.
CTCL rose to prominence when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg donated an initial $300 million to the organization on September 1, 2020 — two months before the November election. But CTCL’s efforts to fund election operations were underway well before the “Zuckbucks” poured in. As early as July 2020, emails show that CTCL and its partners targeted the Democratic strongholds of Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia, as well as Philadelphia’s suburban counties — all of which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Also, the fact that the grant opportunity was being distributed by invitation appears to have been understood by state and local officials in the know.
“Chester and Montco have both heard about the Philadelphia and Delaware County grants,” Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther wrote to a consultant working to distribute the grants to these Democrat-leaning areas. “I am reluctant to share too much information with them because I do not have authorization.”
Emails also show former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and a deputy in Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, Jessica Walls-Lavelle, inviting Democrat-voting counties to apply. On August 15, 2020, Boockvar emailed Bucks County Commissioner Diane Marseglia, “Commissioner Marseglia, by this email I am connecting you with Jessica Walls-Lavelle. Jessica, I told Commissioner Marseglia that there may be some Election administration nonprofit grant funds available, and Bucks county is interested.”
Tellingly, no emails received via the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law requests to the Office of the Pennsylvania Governor, the Pennsylvania Department of State, and several counties showed Republican counties receiving similar invitations or assistance from anyone in the state’s administration or working on CTCL’s behalf.
CTCL claims to have eventually approved grants to Republican-tilting counties. This is true. But these counties were only made aware of the grants after September 1, 2020, when Zuckerberg’s donation had come in. Select Democratic counties were given a head start, assistance with their applications, and even guidance on handling media attention.
Republican Grants Dwarfed By Democrats’ Haul
Moreover, reports from Broad + Liberty and the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-leaning nonprofit policy organization, show the final private funding totals were heavily skewed in favor of “blue” counties. Rural, Republican-tilting counties like Mercer and Luzerne received grants equaling $0.75 cents per registered voter. In contrast, Delaware County and Chester Counties, both with Democratic majorities, received $5.17 and $6.73 per registered voter, respectively.
This isn’t surprising given the known ideological alignment of CTCL and the organizations working to facilitate the grant opportunity with Democrat-voting counties. Reuther noted to one of her colleagues, “If a left leaning public charity wants to further my objective, I am good with it. I will deal with the blow back.”
Walls-Lavelle — the governor’s office staffer to whom Boockvar had connected the Bucks County commissioner — has a background littered with connections to Democratic partisan and get-out-the-vote organizations. Emails show her coordinating with consultants for a group called The Voter Project on numerous counties’ grant applications.
One Voter Project consultant, Gwen Camp, is the former political director of Obama for America and a former Democrat Sen. Bob Casey staffer. Another Voter Project consultant, Kevin Mack, boasts in his company profile that the project was “instrumental in signing up over 3.2 million people to vote by mail and leading the soft-side effort to win the swing state in 2020” for Democrats.
Even before the inner workings of these grants were exposed, they were viewed with suspicion, prompting lawsuits and legislation to slow or eliminate private money from election administration. But attempts at reform have been stymied by those in power.
Pennsylvania Governor Vetoes Bill Banning Zuckbucks
In June, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed House Bill 1300, a major election reform bill that included a ban on “Zuckbucks” in future elections. Wolf promptly vetoed the bill. Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, could have investigated the private election grants, but he has little incentive to do so. He is running unopposed in the Democratic primary to succeed Wolf in the governor’s mansion next year.
More recently, Keystone State lawmakers appear poised to take another run at curbing “Zuckbucks” despite the governor’s opposition and the attorney general’s apathy. Voters should hope this effort and others like it succeed.
Pennsylvania’s experience with private election grants should be evidence enough for lawmakers across the country to regulate their use and to view handouts from unvetted private organizations with healthy suspicion. Americans deserve to have confidence that elections are being conducted fairly. Private election grants only reinforce the perception of systemic fraud and fan the flames of partisan division.