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HARRISBURG – On November 2, hundreds of local races across Pennsylvania will be on the ballot, but figuring out who funds candidates and how they spend that money can be onerous and time-consuming, a review from Spotlight PA revealed.
Local candidates were required to file final pre-election campaign finance reports with their county by October 22. nine counties.
The results revealed the consequences of the state’s decentralized campaign finance system, where residents of one county may have much easier access to information than another. Three counties posted the information online, three required an in-person visit to the election office, and three asked the reporter to file a formal file request – a sometimes lengthy process.
Melissa Melewsky – media lawyer for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which Spotlight PA is a member – said counties are not required to publish financial information online, but they should because it creates less work for them and improves accessibility for the public.
“Access should be consistent across the Commonwealth,” Melewsky said. “You shouldn’t have better access in one county, but not in another. “
Although they receive relatively little attention, local races like those of school boards, county commissioners and judicial judges have a huge impact on people’s daily lives. School board races in particular have been more controversial of late across the country as QAnon supporters and conspiracy theorists. target local offices to influence policy-making, with some candidates funded by organizations with extreme views.
This makes transparent campaign finance rules all the more important.
READ MORE: A Basic Guide to Validating Your Local Candidates for Pennsylvania School Elections in 2021
The Pennsylvania State Department, which collects campaign finance records from candidates for state office, makes the records available to free online viewing. Allegheny, Dolphin, and Philadelphia cream Counties do it too, Spotlight PA found, in easily searchable databases.
Other counties require applicants to appear in person at the county election office, which is an additional complication. Counties have different rules regarding access to in-person records, such as paperwork or appointment scheduling. And this information is usually not readily available online – people have to call or email. People who wish to view documents but work during the day face an additional load, as election offices are often only open during normal office hours.
To get specific reports in Montgomery County, officials asked Spotlight PA to send a list of candidates and political committees of interest.
Officials from Schuylkill and Northumberland counties said Spotlight PA would need to fill out a form in order to get campaign fundraising information in person. The Schuylkill County form contains a clause requiring the claimant not to disclose reports publicly, which Melewsky says can only be applied to voter records, not financial disclosures.
Northumberland County officials said they would send in files after Spotlight PA obtained a form in person. They then offered to email the form, but never did.
Crawford, Forest and Fulton counties have asked Spotlight PA to search for the documents through the Right to Know Act, which allows anyone to request government documents. Officials have five days to respond to a request, but they can extend the deadline for many reasons without much recourse, which could leave voters in the dark on election day.
Forest County responded to the Right to Know request immediately, sending out the financial reports within 24 hours. Fulton County also responded within this time frame, but provided campaign finance reports for only one candidate and only two committees. Crawford County sent a PDF of the requested reports within 48 hours.
School board races are usually sleepy business, but there’s a ton of money going into it this year. Some applicants have been linked to QAnon and other extreme views, such as opposing “critical race theory” – a concept often taught in law schools that studies how racism shapes people. American policies and institutions – or the rejection of science on the policies of COVID-19 masks and vaccines.
Without campaign finance reports, it’s difficult to determine who is funding candidates and their potential motivations for getting involved in the race.
Back to School PA, a political action committee founded by a Bucks County venture capitalist, spent nearly $ 700,000 on school errands, mainly to support groups supporting Republicans.
A campaign fundraising report filed with the Pennsylvania State Department shows that much of the PAC’s money came from venture capitalist Paul Martino as well as the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund and Students First PAC.
READ MORE: Bucks County father angered by COVID-19 closures gave school board candidates $ 500,000. Critics say it fuels a “toxic” policy.
The Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund is led by Matthew Brouillette, former head of the Commonwealth Foundation Conservative Think Tank. He received millions from Students First PAC, which is funded by billionaire Jeffrey Yass.
Yass was one of the main funders of an organization that supported candidates who spreading disinformation about the 2020 elections (even though he later tried to get away from them) and, according to Billy Penn, also donated money to groups that supported a candidate who took a photo with a white supremacist.
Among its many expenses, Back to School PA donated $ 10,000 this year to a PAC called Palmyra First. The group does not appear to have a website or social media accounts, but campaign fundraising records show it is spending money to support Republicans and has received funds from Brouillette and the representative of the ‘State Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon).
Palmyre First funded senders with misinformation targeting Republicans running for the Palmyra area school board on the Democrat ticket.
He sent the letters to Democrats and accused the candidates of trying to deceive voters. The Lebanon County Democratic Party, however, said on Facebook that the candidates “entered on the ballot don’t care about the Party, they care about the children and the schools.”
Ryan Patrick, a registered Republican and one of the candidates targeted by shippers, told Spotlight PA that he registered for both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots, which is a common practice for school board candidates.
He was not surprised by the shippers, who called him one of “Donald Trump’s Republican friends.”
“It really disappoints me that instead of focusing on the issues facing our district and having open discussions about it, these groups want to try to intimidate, misinform and act like bullies,” said Patrick.
Dave Laudermilch, another candidate targeted by shippers, said he was curious as to why special interests are so interested in local elections.
“There are so many outside implications,” Laudermilch said. “What interests will they defend once they are on the board? “
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