States say no to private election funding
Republicans worry about the influence of “Zuckerbucks” on local districts
When the COVID-19 virus hit the United States in 2020, illness, quarantine orders, mask mandates, and social distancing wreaked havoc on not only daily life but also on local election administrators. Many scrambled to find alternative venues to accommodate 6 feet of distance between voters or to purchase copious amounts of paper for a surge of mail-in ballots.
They accomplished this in large part thanks to private funding—mostly from the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, personally donated $350 million to the CTCL and another $100 million to the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Most of the money was earmarked for tech support and personal protection equipment for election workers, but the CTCL donations—sometimes called “Zuckerbucks”—have drawn scrutiny from Republicans for disproportionately funding Democratic districts. As the nation prepares for midterm elections this year and presidential races in 2024, many states are clamping down on third-party funding of elections.
This week, Philadelphia elections chief Lisa Deeley requested $27.1 million from the city council, well above the mayor’s proposed budget. The Brennan Center for Justice recently estimated the nation will need roughly $100 million just to replace the most outdated polling equipment. At the same time, voters have pushed for physical ballots and more mail-in voting. Inflation and supply chain problems are taking their toll on elections, as well. In January, Texas had to limit the number of forms it gave to voter registration groups ahead of its March primaries.
In 2020, Congress approved an emergency $400 million to send to states to help election administrators respond to the pandemic. This year, the federal government sent $75 million in election funding as part of President Joe Biden’s spending package. In his latest budget proposal, Biden requested $10 billion for new elections assistance over the next decade. CTCL has asked Congress for double this amount.
But some experts and lawmakers say states still haven’t used all of the funding currently available and that CTCL’s donations were unethical. According to the federal Election Assistance Commission, roughly $435 million dedicated to election security—but separate from the emergency pandemic aid—is lying unused in state accounts. Legislators say this makes them hesitant to commit more money.
A joint report from the MIT Elections Lab and the American Enterprise Institute named the CTCL as the largest of three major philanthropic organizations to donate money to local election administrations in 2020, with 2,518 recipients. MIT and AEI said the donations gave a “crucial lifeline” to election jurisdictions. Characterizing CTCL’s contributions as “bake sales for democracy,” the report concluded that the pandemic heightened a need for partnerships with nonprofits.
Trevor Carlsen with the Foundation for Government Accountability doubts private funding has such pure motives. The MIT/AEI report found no evidence of partisan intent, but a series of FGA studies found that although CTCL provided grants to every applicant, it delivered more funds per registered voter in jurisdictions with more Biden supporters in 2020.
“The infusion of cash into certain jurisdictions—those that leaned heavily Democrat—drove up voter turnout in blue districts and allowed partisanship to weasel its way into the part of elections that is supposed to be nonpartisan,” Carlsen wrote for RealClearPolicy. “Zuckerbucks hijacked election administration and used the government itself as a partisan get-out-the-vote tool.”
The Center for Tech and Civic Life countered that applying cities had more support needs than rural districts, and urban areas lean Democrat. Additionally, the organization said that the grants were intended to fund personal protective equipment, worker recruitment and training, and materials needed for absentee voting. Carlsen studied how the money was used in states like Missouri and Virginia and found less than 5 percent of donations went toward things like masks and hand sanitizer. Expenditure reports indicated states spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding on “non-partisan voter education.”
Last week, Ben LaBolt, a spokesperson for Zuckerberg and Chan, said the couple meant their donation to be a one-time expenditure due to the extreme circumstances the pandemic caused. LaBolt said they have no plans to repeat it this year. Also last week, CTCL executive director Tiana Epps-Johnson unveiled a new branch of the organization: the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence. CTCL aims to build a coalition of election directors who can continue to apply for grants from a five-year, $80 million fund.
Lawmakers suspicious of such private funding are pushing to eliminate it. Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a law banning state and local election officials from accepting nongovernmental funds. Days later, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the “Zuckerbucks bill” into law, making it illegal for administrators to accept private funds for election-related expenses. It makes Alabama the 18th state to ban or restrict this money.
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Lisa Baker proposed a similar ban that the Republican-led Senate approved last week. The measure will go to the House next, but because the current bill would also end ballot drop boxes in the state, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is likely to veto it. But Baker said the legislation was necessary: “Senate Bill 982 simply states what all of us understood to be fact—government should pay for elections.”
Carlsen told WORLD the benefit of legislation blocking Zuckerbucks and other third-party funding is a rebuilding of trust in election outcomes: “By enacting these types of protections that make the elections more secure, states can increase voter confidence, and that’s really why it’s important for them to put these safeguards back in place.”
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