The Lead

Wolf admin has paid lawyers $3.4 million for two dozen election lawsuits

By: - February 17, 2021 5:19 pm

Pennsylvania is redesigning its mail-in ballots for 2024. (Capital-Star photo)

Pennsylvania has spent $1 million more on election lawsuits than previously known, the state’s highest ranking election official said Wednesday.

All told, the Department of State spent $3.4 million on outside counsel to address the “out of the ordinary number of unusual litigation we were involved in in 2020,” acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid told lawmakers at the department’s budget hearing.

The legal actions in which outside counsel provided representation ranged from fending off suits by interest groups hoping to approve ballot harvesting for elderly voters to appeals filed by Pennsylvania Republicans seeking to overturn lower court decisions.

All told, outside counsel aided the department in 24 separate lawsuits. The Capital-Star previously had identified about a dozen cases and $2 million in legal fees from bills sent to the Department of State.

Combined with $1.8 million in legal expenses tallied by legislative Republicans, it means taxpayers footed at least $5.2 million worth of legal fees, much of it to politically well-connected law firms during the 2020 election.

Election season court fights have cost Pa. taxpayers nearly $4M and counting

That total  still could increase, with some appeals pending and some expenses still not accounted for.

The revelation came as Degraffenreid handled about three hours of questioning before the House Appropriations Committee over the agency’s $32 million budget request, particularly spending related to the 2020 election.

The conversation did not enter explicitly political territory. Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, quickly cut off a Democratic lawmaker whose question started with a reference to former President Donald Trump’s supporters storming the U.S. Capitol in January.

“I warned you ahead of time I was not getting into election results,” Saylor said.

But Republicans did question Degraffenreid, who is in her second week as acting secretary, about issues ranging from the cost of ballot drop off boxes to grants from a foundation linked to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

According to NPR, 22 Pennsylvania counties, both rural and urban, received at least $16.1 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, to which Zuckerberg and his wife donated $350 million to last year.

Counties used those dollars to cover such expenses as buying high speed ballot scanners, and  paying extra staff to process ballots or watch drop boxes.

Degraffenreid is the acting secretary because former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar resigned earlier this month due to a procedural mistake delaying by up to two years a constitutional amendment to help childhood survivors of sexual assault.

Republicans also pressed Degraffenreid about some unorthodox voting advertisements, such as the use of banners pulled by a plane. 

Degraffenreid said the aerial advertisements were used throughout the commonwealth, but particularly in highly populated areas, such as Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Erie.

“We didn’t get to see the banner,” remarked Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver a Republican from Northumberland County in the rural upper Susquehanna River Valley.

The department did not have total spending on the banners available, but Degraffenreid defended the dollars as necessary to meet voters where they are.

“Not everyone watches TV. Not everyone uses social media. Not everybody looks at their mail. We tried to be very comprehensive,” she said.

For example, in the run up to the rescheduled June primary election last year, the state spent $2.3 million advertising the new date as well as newly available mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.