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HARRISBURG – As of Tuesday, 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 expensive and time-consuming, a review from Spotlight PA found.
Local candidates were due to file final campaign finance reports with their county by October 22. To test how easily and quickly the public could access this information less than two weeks before the election, Spotlight PA requested reports for school board candidates in 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.
âAccess should be consistent across the Commonwealth,â Melewsky said. âYou 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 being funded by organizations with opinions. extremes.
This makes transparent campaign finance rules all the more important.
The Pennsylvania State Department, which collects campaign finance records from candidates for state office, makes the records available for free online viewing. Allegheny, Dauphin and Philadelphia counties are also doing it, 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 about 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 timeframe, but only provided campaign finance reports for one in more than 80 candidates and only two committees. Crawford County sent a PDF of the requested reports within 48 hours.
Why access is important
School board races are usually sleepy business, but there’s a ton of money going into it this year. 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, mostly to support Republicans. 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 not to believe the science on COVID-19 masks policies and vaccines.
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.
The Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund is led by Matthew Brouillette, former head of the Commonwealth Foundation Conservative Think Tank.
Students First PAC is funded by billionaire Jeffrey Yass and has donated millions to the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund. Yass supported candidates who spread disinformation about the 2020 election (although he later tried to distance himself from them) and donated money to groups who supported a candidate who took a photo with a white supremacist.
In addition to the dozens of applicants, Back to School PA also 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 funding records show it is spending money to support Republicans and has received funding from State Representative Frank Ryan , R-Lebanon.
Palmyra First has funded direct mail with disinformation targeting Republicans running under the Democratic banner.
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 “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 had registered on the Democratic and Republican primary ballots, which is 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.
âThere are so many outside implications,â Laudermilch said. âWhat interests will they defend once they are on the board? “
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