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GOP Legislators Sue Philly, Delco, Centre County Over Election Grant Money

State representatives who filed a lawsuit say the grants came from a "partisan" foundation. The Center for Tech and Civic Life says its funders come from both major political parties.

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What to Know

  • A group of Republican lawmakers filed a lawsuit attempting to block 3 Pennsylvania counties from spending grant money on elections
  • The grants came from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit that recently received a $250 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
  • Philly received $10 million that allowed for increased processing capacity from mail-in ballots and recruiting more poll workers

A group of Republican state legislators is suing Philadelphia, Delaware County and Centre County in federal court, saying right-leaning candidates and voters are "injured" and unfairly treated by local elections boards' usage of grant money from a nonprofit.

At issue in the suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, is $13 million in grants distributed to the 3 localities from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). This year the nonprofit has seen a surge in donations - including $250 million from Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg - in the unprecedented election during the coronavirus pandemic.

The plaintiffs include eight Republican state legislators including Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, and Philly Republican U.S. House candidates David Torres and Michael Harvey. They say they're part of the "Pennsylvania Voters Alliance," which other media reports have described as an advocacy group. But the organization appears to have no social media presence or website, and the only search engine results for the group - which has also been referred to as the Pennsylvania Voters Association - are news articles about this lawsuit.

Public databases for the FEC, IRS and Guidestar, an information service that tracks nonprofit groups, also had no record of the Pennsylvania Voters Alliance.

According to media reports, Voters Alliance organizations are trying to block use of CTCL grant money in other states including Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Pennsylvania GOP legislators, candidates and other party officials in the alliance said the grants to Philadelphia, Delaware and Centre counties will disproportionately favor progressive voters over conservatives. The suit also argues that local governments accepting nonprofit money that the state government declined would constitute an illegal public-private partnership.

"CTCL, to accomplish its objective of turning out progressive votes in the urban counties and cities, has circumvented these state legislatures by recruiting local governments to apply and agree to accept CTCL's private federal election grants," the suit says.

The suit's arguments are in line with those made by the right-wing anti-abortion Thomas More Society. That organization's founder said in a press statement that the grants were "intentionally targeting Democratic strongholds for the purpose of boosting voter turnout in those areas that delivered overwhelming majorities for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, in a clear effort to sway the statewide 2020 elections."

Philly went 82% for Clinton in 2016, and Delco went just under 60% for Clinton in 2016. She beat Donald Trump in Centre County by fewer than 2,000 votes.

In a statement posted on its website, the Center says it is nonpartisan and has helped localities regardless of which party their voters might favor.

Dan Lee/NBC10
A voter fills out a mail-in ballot for the Pennsylvania General Election at Temple University's Liacouras Center on Sept. 29. Seven of fifteen satellite mail-in voting sites opened Sept. 29, which the city funded with a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

“This year, we’ve heard from countless election officials, from across the political spectrum, who simply don’t have the funding they need to provide a safe, secure voting process for their voters as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," the statement said. "In this moment of need, we feel so fortunate to be administering an open call grant program available to every local election department in every state in the union to ensure that they have the staffing, training, and equipment necessary so that this November every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and have their vote counted.”

When it posted notice of the grants on Sept. 1, the center called it "an open call to every local election office in the country."

Asked about the suit at a news conference Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney said he hadn't seen it, but the City Solicitor was reviewing it.

The legislators who signed onto the suit “could always provide us with the money we need to open up all polling places in an effective way,” Kenney said.

In a follow-up statement, a city spokesman said the Center is a non-partisan non-profit, and disputed conservatives' claim that the grants would favor progressive voters or candidates.

"This will allow Philadelphia to receive a $10 million grant to help run a safe, smooth, and secure election this fall in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," the spokesman wrote in an emailed statement.

When asked if the suit stops elections work that is funded by the grant, the spokesman responded: "Not in the slightest."

The $10 million Philly received from CTCL was used to launch 15 satellite sites for mail-in voting, seven of which opened Tuesday. The grant also paid for poll workers and cleaning supplies for the additional polling places that will be open in the general election compared to the primaries.

It also funded the purchase of more than $5 million of equipment that would send and process mail-in ballots faster, and ensure an accurate and quick count, a city news release says.

CTCL issued a $2.2 million grant to Delaware County gave $863,000 to Centre County.

According to The Associated Press, CTCL announced an upcoming series of grants to rural areas but hasn’t provided specifics.

“I cannot believe people of such partisanship will put their partisanship aside while taking hundreds of millions of dollars and distributing it to election offices,” Scott Walter, head of the conservative nonprofit monitor Capital Research Center, told the AP.

Still, Walter acknowledged, conservative-leaning nonprofits — and the GOP Senate — have not stepped in to help elections officials.

“Honestly, I wish the right would do it, not only so the election would be more balanced but so we could have an honest debate about whether (charities) should do this,” Walter said.

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