Pa. lawmakers weigh measures exposing 'dark money,' banning ballot drop boxes

Mar. 20—HARRISBURG — A bill in the Pennsylvania House seeking to shine light on "dark money" advanced out of committee and toward a floor vote, however, a dissenter to the proposal warned it could run afoul of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The bill was among four election-related proposals addressing either money or election security to move through committees in the state House and Senate on Tuesday, getting closer to floor votes in the respective chambers.

House Bill 1472 would change how civic leagues and certain nonprofit organizations report independent campaign contributions.

The bill would eliminate the threshold of $100 to require that subject organizations report any amount of spending in a calendar year. For contributions within the 24-hour reporting period, the threshold of $500 would be eliminated.

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, a prime sponsor of the bill, told members of the House State Government Committee that exorbitant spending by dark money groups can generate heavy influence without transparency.

"I don't know how any of us in good conscience can say to Pennsylvanians that they have no right to know who is spending millions of dollars opposing constitutional amendments, that they have no right to know who is spending millions of dollars effectively helping to decide who represents them in their government," Kenyatta said during a committee hearing.

Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford/Erie, the committee's minority chair, didn't address the legislation's intent. Instead, he challenged its legality and the potential to open the commonwealth to costly litigation.

Roae pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2021 where a majority order held that compelled disclosure of major donors to charities was unconstitutional.

A house resolution passed earlier through the committee — eight Republicans including Roae supported it — encouraging Congress to enact a constitutional amendment affirming that elected officials have the authority to regulate political spending beyond direct contributions to candidates and committees.

Should that constitutional change come to pass, Roae said, the Pennsylvania bill on dark money would be legal.

Kenyatta countered that the ruling is specific to individual donors to charities and didn't address contributions by charitable organizations to campaigns and committees.

Committee members voted 16-9 to advance the bill, moving it toward a potential vote of the full House. All Democrats and two Republicans voted in support including Rep. Timothy Bonner, R-Mercer/Butler.

Another bill moved unanimously through the committee.

House Bill 1220 from Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton, would enhance campaign spending transparency of candidates for the General Assembly by adding an additional pre-election reporting deadline.

Freeman's bill would align reporting standards for the state House and Senate with those in place already for candidates seeking statewide office — requiring that expense reports be filed by the sixth Tuesday prior to an election in addition to the existing reporting deadline on the second Friday before an election.

Later Tuesday in the Senate State Government Committee, two bills advanced on 7-4 party-line votes proposing to eliminate drop boxes and county satellite elections offices and also require enhanced fraud protection for ballots along the lines of what's in place for U.S. paper currency.

Both bills were introduced by that committee's chair, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Cameron/Centre/Clinton/Elk/Jefferson/McKean/Potter.

Senate Bill 99 would require that any mail-in ballots delivered by voters in person be dropped off only at a county's main election office.

Dush and other Republicans have frequently raised concerns about ballot-stuffing and harvesting of mail-in ballots, and favor eliminating universal mail-in voting altogether.

"These things are not a matter of law, they have not been created by law the way they're supposed to be created," Dush said of drop boxes.

Senate Bill 250 would require the use of anti-fraud ballot paper at elections that uses watermarking and holographic foil, for example, among measures to prevent the production of fraudulent ballots. Potential costs to counties for the enhanced measures weren't discussed.

Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware/Montgomery, said that despite claims otherwise, drop boxes are safe and secure and that satellite offices help boost public access and election participation, especially for those in the workforce. She said the committee would have been better served to spend time on measures where there is bipartisan agreement.

She and Dush each indicated Monday, following an informational committee hearing, that issues around cybersecurity should have bipartisan agreement.

Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh/Northampton, made three failed attempts to amend Senate Bill 99 to enact what many county election officials seek: more time to pre-canvass mail-in ballots so election returns are calculated faster, open primary elections to independent voters and allow people whose mail-in ballots are rejected to vote by provisional ballot. All were defeated on party-line voting.