Before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg poured an unprecedented $350 million into the Center for Tech and Civic Life to help state and local officials administer the 2020 election, the nonprofit group first distributed millions in grants to election officials in key counties and cities nationwide, including the swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
While Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, publicly announced their $350 million donation to CTLC on Sept. 1, 2020, the donors who provided millions of dollars for election help distributed earlier that summer remain unknown thanks to a law that allows nonprofit groups to withhold donor information.
In Pennsylvania, that money was selectively offered to Democratic-leaning districts, Republican lawmakers and a center-right watchdog investigator testified Tuesday.
At a Pennsylvania State Senate hearing, Republican lawmakers proposed legislation to end private funding of elections, pointing out millions of dollars provided to key state jurisdictions came from unknown sources. The state received approximately $15 million in grants from the anonymously sourced donations to CTLC.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, who is sponsoring one of the bills to end private election funding, held up the redacted pages of CTLC’s tax disclosure forms at the hearing, including one that lists a $1.4 million donation next to a blacked-out name.
“We do not know who these individuals are,” Mrs. Baker said. “And for me, a person who’s willing to give $1.4 million as a donation to an organization that is funding publicly held elections. I’d like to know who these individuals are.”
CTLC did not respond to a request for comment.
In Pennsylvania, government officials appeared to have contacted only Democratic-leaning counties to apply for the anonymously donated grants, according to an investigation conducted by Broad and Liberty, a center-right think tank based in Philadelphia.
Among the places that received the anonymous funding from the CTLC was the city of Philadelphia, which was awarded more than $10 million, as well as Delaware, Chester, Montgomery counties — all heavily populated districts where Democratic voters outnumber GOP voters, Todd Shepherd, an investigator and journalist for Broad and Liberty, testified Wednesday.
Some of these jurisdictions later received additional funding from Mr. Zuckerberg’s pot of $350 million through CTLC.
But before that, they were selectively invited to apply for the much smaller pool of CTLC funding in the summer of 2020 by officials who work for Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the secretary of state, who is appointed by the governor.
The outreach occurred before Sept. 1, before the Zuckerbergs announced plans to donate $250 million to the CTLC. It was the first of two installments totaling $350 million from the Zuckerbergs which were aimed at helping states facilitate the 2020 election amid the Covid pandemic.
Government officials invited Allegheny County, another blue jurisdiction, to apply for CTLC funds, but county officials did not do so until after the Zuckerberg donation.
CTLC operates as a nonpartisan group advocating for election modernization. The founders are Tiana Epps-Johnson, Donny Bridges and Whitney May, who formerly ran a training center for “left of center digital activists,” according to Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s massive private funding opened up the grant process to jurisdictions nationwide. But before the Sept. 1 announcement of his donation, election officials appeared to have had no idea the additional money was coming and selectively invited counties to apply for the smaller pot of funds, at least in Pennsylvania, Mr. Shepherd reported.
“The counties approached before Sept. 1 were all blue counties,” Mr. Shepherd testified. “I saw no emails in which those two government offices worked with, or contacted any ‘red’ county, before Sept. 1.”
State officials also provided additional assistance to the select blue counties that were awarded the early grants to help them maximize the amount of money they were awarded by CTLC, Mr. Shepherd testified.
Public records requests revealed that in some instances, the additional assistance to blue counties was provided by Democratic political operatives who “became involved, raising considerable ethical questions,” Mr. Shepherd said.
An email obtained by Mr. Shepherd through a public records request shows involvement in the CTLC grant management by Marc Solomon who worked on behalf of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, which “aligns bipartisan, pro-voter campaigns in states across the country that modernizes the voting system, making elections more efficient and secure,” according to the group’s website. It is a project of the New Venture Fund, which advocates for “sweeping election changes, including state laws that automatically register voters at state agencies,” according to the Capital Research Center.
New Venture is managed by Arabella Advisors, a liberal “dark money” group.
In an email about a grant application from officials in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Mr. Solomon suggested to CTLC staff that the county should increase its $1.2 million request, exclaiming it’s “the third-largest county in the state, Philly suburbs!”
According to county records from May 2020, registered Democrats in Montgomery County outnumbered registered Republicans by about 85,000 voters.
“This raises my curiosity and suspicion that the grants were not a Covid-safety effort but rather a get out the vote effort,” Mr. Shepherd told the lawmakers.
Overall, Pennsylvania received $25 million from the CTLC for administering the 2020 election. All of the money originated from Mr. Zuckerberg and the anonymous donors. More money was spent on Democratic voters than Republicans, a pattern that CTLC donations repeated nationwide.
Wisconsin also received millions of dollars from CTLC’s anonymous donors. The CTLC announced in July 2020, before the Zuckerberg funding, that it donated $6.3 million to Wisconsin’s five largest cities, which all lean Democratic.
The money came at the request of the mayors of Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Racine who were invited to apply for the grants.
The mayors said the funds would be partly used to safely conduct the election while reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19. In a June statement requesting the money, the mayors wrote they would also use the funds “to identify best practices; innovate to efficiently and effectively educate our residents about how to exercise their right to vote; be intentional and strategic in reaching our historically disenfranchised residents and communities; and, above all, ensure the right to vote in our dense and diverse communities.”
The Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit conservative law firm, found that much of the anonymous grant money was spent on vote-by-mail and absentee voting equipment, poll worker recruitment and training, temporary staffing, election administration equipment and voter education.
Less than 5% of the funding was used to pay for personal protective equipment, according to the institute.
In Pennsylvania, recipients of the summer funding from CTLC used some of the money to open costly satellite election offices, which greatly expanded access to voting in those jurisdictions.
Only six jurisdictions in the state opened satellite offices and five of them received the early CTLC grants. A sixth jurisdiction, Bucks County, was offered early CTLC funding but declined, citing concerns about the anonymous funding.
Philadelphia used part of its grant money to open 17 satellite election facilities. The offices allowed people to register to vote as well as seek and return mail-in ballots. The facilities were open seven days a week from Oct. 21 until election day.
Brian Baker, a spokesman for Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan, said in a statement that the funds provided by the Zuckerbergs were disclosed ahead of the election and were provided to every jurisdiction that applied for the money.
More jurisdictions that received funding “historically voted Republican than Democrat, and the majority of funds went to areas that either Trump or Biden won by clear margins,” Mr. Baker said,
At Tuesday’s hearing, Democrats criticized the testimony and rejected the proposed legislation to eliminate private funding of elections. They argued that the government had not provided adequate funding to carry out the 2020 election, leaving officials scrambling to find ways to accommodate a surge in voters during a pandemic.
The money did not unfairly impact the outcome, they said.
In Philadelphia, for instance, 5,000 more Republicans voted in 2020 than in 2016, while 600 fewer Democrats voted in 2020 than in 2016, Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa M. Deeley testified.
“I believe that these bills are the result of the continued misinformation around the 2020 presidential election, and are seeking to make election officials’ lives more difficult to score political points among those who believe the ‘big lie’ about 2020,” Ms. Deeley said, referencing former President Donald Trump’s false claim the election was rigged in favor of President Biden. “The election was not stolen. There was no steal. The fact that counties received funds to offset election costs had no effect on the outcome of that election.”
• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at email@example.com.
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