The Big Lie Is the Problem, Not Nonprofit Funding of PA Elections

Marc Stier |

Senate Bill 982, introduced by Senators Baker and Phillips-Hill, looks like an innocuous bill to ban “third-party funding” of our elections—that is the grants that nonpartisan, nonprofit groups give county election officials to help run our elections. But in fact, it is a hypocritical attempt to carry out the Republican agenda of supporting the Big Lie about the 2020 election and making voting more difficult in our state.

Start with the hypocrisy: the Republican Party is the party of privatization. They want to privatize our schools by giving corporations tax breaks to support private schools. They want to hollow out our public schools by creating charter schools funded by private enterprises. When we criticize those proposals on the grounds that private funding is not accountable to the public and does not flow equally to all children, they scoff. They are also the party that pushed to use private-public partnerships to rebuild our bridges, even when there was some evidence that they undermine labor standards and little evidence that they save money. (And when those private-public partnerships led to tolling bridges in their communities they were the first to object.) They want to privatize our liquor stores, even though we—and conservatives as well—have demonstrated that this would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. They don’t object when their underfunding leads private groups to raise money to support our state parks.

But when it comes to elections, they object to the use of private funding. Why?

That leads us to the Big Lie. In their continuing efforts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 elections, the Republicans are complaining that private funds were not distributed fairly to all counties with more of that funding money going to Democratic-leaning rather than Republican-leaning counties.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life and other groups offered private funding to every county in the state. Whether their staff members had Democratic connections or not, as nonprofit organizations, they had to be scrupulous in ensuring that every county was contacted multiple times and was offered the same level of help.

Were there differences in which counties took advantage of this offer to help? Yes. But anyone who actually remembers what happened during the course of the 2020 election will know why. Given the difficulties created by the pandemic, Democratic campaigns and progressive advocacy groups were strongly encouraging voters to vote by mail. Democratic-leaning county election offices were doing the same but were also frantic to find funds to ensure they could set up satellite offices and ballot boxes so people could return their ballots safely and the votes could be counted rapidly.

However, in a dismaying turn of events, Republicans—including Donald Trump—were dismissing the threat of COVID-19 and discouraging voters from voting by mail. Indeed, discouraging voters is, sadly, a recurrent Republican election strategy because they know that when voting is difficult the burden of voting falls more heavily on voters of color and voters with low incomes. And, even in heavily Republican counties, those voters are more likely to support Democrats.

Is it any wonder, then, that even Republican-leaning counties were discouraged from applying for funds from nonprofits to bolster the funding of their elections?

And that might not have been the only reason election officials in Republican counties were discouraged from seeking private funding for their elections.

To support the dishonest Republican campaign to cast doubt on the 2020 election, the majority party flips the story when it blames distribution inequality on the nonprofit, nonpartisan groups that provided those funds.

The funding made available to counties from nonpartisan nonprofits was critical to making the 2020 election work as well as it did and to having fair elections.

And this funding was necessary because, here in Pennsylvania and across the country, Republicans were blocking the expenditure of public funds to gear up for what everyone knew would be an extremely difficult election.

They are still doing so. If Republicans were really serious about the issue of nonprofit funding of elections, they would eliminate the need for it by introducing and enacting legislation to fully fund our elections.

That they are not doing so shows that the goal of SB928 is to support the Big Lie narrative—not to make voting easy or secure. So does their embrace of HB1300 and HB1800 which, as we have shown, would make voting more difficult for Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth.

Underfunding elections, here and across the country, is part of the Republican strategy to reduce turnout by making voting harder and undermining confidence in our elections. That a provision of SB982 would seem to make nonpartisan efforts to register voters illegal reinforces that supposition.

So, no, we don’t need legislation to stop nonprofit funding of elections especially when the point of that legislation is to cast more doubt on our elections. We need adequate and equitable state funding for elections.  That we don’t have it now is easily explained by the partisan division over voting: one side wants everyone to vote—the other side doesn’t.