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Politics & Government

Pennsylvania Senate approves ban on private election funding grants and ending ballot drop boxes

Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Robert Harvie mail-in ballots drop box voting vote election
Matt Slocum
/
AP
Bucks County commissioners Diane Ellis-Marseglia, left, and Robert Harvie unpack a new ballot drop box at the county's administration building prior to the primary election, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Doylestown, Pa.

Pennsylvania’s Republican-led Senate is advancing a pair of controversial election law changes.

Under one, which passed 37-12, county election departments could not use private grant money to help fund their operations, while another approved mostly along party lines would effectively eliminate the ability for counties to set up ballot drop boxes for absentee and mail-in voters.

A spokesman for majority House Republicans said lawmakers there would review the bills upon their arrival in that chamber. Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said it opposes both, but did not indicate whether Wolf would veto either or both.

Banning private election grants

Republican supporters of the move to curb private grant money pointed to efforts by a nonprofit group in 2020 with links to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Those lawmakers say the group, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, crossed the line when it gave $25 million dollars to 23 Pennsylvania counties to fund things like satellite offices and additional equipment.

Election departments across the country were invited to apply for a share of $350 million in all, most of which Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated personally.

While the GOP has argued the distribution of that money was inequitable, reporting from American Public Media Reports shows Democratic and Republican-controlled counties in Pennsylvania received that money. The Department of State has also told lawmakers that all 67 were invited to apply for the grants.

If the Senate bill is approved, election departments could only use tax money for those efforts. A similar effort passed the House late last year.

“This has the ability to ruin trust in our systems,” sponsor Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) said. “I don’t think you will find anyone on either side of the aisle who could argue that our elections process should be a quasi-private-public partnership.”

At least one Democratic senator, Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Delaware), said during a committee meeting this week he would support banning private grants as long as counties receive more public money for elections.

County agencies pay most election costs on their own.

“That may mean for some people in this room, you’re going to have to raise taxes,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to have the revenue to do that along with the courage to do that.”

During a floor vote on the bill Wednesday, Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) offered an amendment providing additional state funding for counties, but it was tabled after Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) urged lawmakers to save funding discussions for budget talks later this year.

Under a House Republican bill that hasn’t received a final vote, the state would start reimbursing those costs, but only if counties published election returns are given six hours after polls close – which counties have said is impossible because workers are not allowed to start processing mail-in ballots until Election Day.

Senate Republicans said they support sending election departments more cash, but a key lawmaker who holds power over such a move didn’t offer any specifics when pressed.

“It’s a moving target, [but] there’s no doubt we need to do better than we’ve done in the past,” Sen. Dave Argall (R-Berks), chair of the Senate State Government committee, said.

Eliminating ballot drop boxes 

The other bill aimed at eliminating drop boxes, from Sen. Cris Dush (R-Cameron), does not explicitly ban the boxes. Both state and federal courts have ruled them constitutional.

Instead, absentee and mail-in voters could only drop off their ballots at a mailbox or with an employee at a county’s main elections office. Counties could set up extra offices, like they did for the 2020 election, but could only have one in the county seat.

Those ideas are not sitting well with Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia, a city that set up 17 temporary election offices in 2020.

“One election office where people can conduct business is outrageous, ridiculous and offensive for a city of millions of people,” Street said.

During Wednesday’s floor debate on the bill, several Democratic senators argued temporary offices and drop boxes are more secure for ballot submissions than mailboxes. The latter, they said, rarely have security devices or staff to ensure voters are dropping off a single ballot – as the law requires.

Sen. Dush, who is also leading a probe into the state’s last two election cycles as chair of a committee, has argued drop boxes are not secure because a few Lehigh County voters were able to illegally drop off more than one ballot last fall. A report by the county’s Republican district attorney showed 288 out of nearly 15,000 voters were caught on surveillance cameras doing that.

Dush first aired claims that were investigated in that report during a hearing connected to his committee’s election probe earlier this month. Those claims were brought by a Lehigh County Republican party official – who was not asked to swear to the truth of his claims.

Investigators who looked into what happened say fraud wasn’t involved – indicating that most voters only dropped off two ballots and that the extras were likely those of a family member. The probe also did not uncover any evidence of a widespread problem.

Voting rights advocates and experts have warned that some Republican lawmakers are pointing to minor incidents to justify crafting legislation that could make it harder for some voters to cast their ballots.

“They [voters] may even use those drop boxes to vote for you,” Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D-Delaware) said during floor debate. You may be even suppressing your own votes by doing this.”

Gov. Wolf called the claim that drop boxes are not secure “inaccurate” and proposed an alternate approach to preventing voters from dropping off multiple ballots. Last fall, First Lady Frances Wolf submitted both her and her husband’s ballot to a drop box, which the governor called an “honest mistake.”

“The governor would welcome a conversation with Republican leaders about funding an educational campaign about these requirements,” Wolf spokesperson Beth Rementer said.

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