GOPers Crack Down On The Private Election Grants That Helped Avoid A Pandemic Fiasco

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April 15, 2021 6:00 a.m.

As the global pandemic required election officials to drastically rethink how voting would work in 2020, philanthropic groups stepped up and contributed millions of dollars that paid for much of the changes needed to election infrastructure. Officials have since said that that money — particularly in light of how Congress struggled to provide enough federal election funding — helped them thwart a pandemic voting fiasco. The charity grants covered everything from election equipment to temp workers to personal protective gear, and some local election offices saw their 2020 budgets doubled by the private funding they received. 

But going forward, that kind of private bailout for U.S. elections may not be an option for many places across the country, as several Republican-controlled states consider new restrictions on whether election officials can accept charity money in the future.

Already this year, Georgia and Arizona have made proposed limits on private election funding law, and lawmakers have put forward similar measures in at least 11 other states (though some of those bills have stalled out or face vetoes from Democratic governors). The backlash to the charity election grants are part of a wave of legislation propelled by President Trump’s lies about his 2020 defeat.

“I have no doubt that the concern stems from what happened in the 2020 election,” said Rick Hasen, a UC-Irvine law professor who runs the election law blog and has written several books about election administration. “Anything that helped that election run smoothly and effectively and cleanly is now the target for attack.”

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It’s unclear what effect such bans will have on election administration going forward. The pandemic was a once-in-a-generation emergency that prompted dramatic changes in how Americans vote — stretching the already tight budgets of election offices across the country. All told, election administrators across the country accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding, in what was reported to have been a mad dash to fill their budget holes last fall.

The grant programs allowed many election administrators put on what one expert at NYU’s Brennan Center described as their “dream” elections. About one in every five local offices accepted the philanthropic funding.

The Republican push to prohibit private election election comes after the charity grants occupied a piece of conspiracy theories floating around the 2020 election — fueled by President Trump and his allies’ ongoing beef with Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder whose charity put up more than $400 million in grants for election administration last year.

Critics of the bills see not just a knee jerk reaction to the 2020 results, but a groundwork being laid to starve election administration coffers, which will in turn reduce voting opportunities — particularly for low-income and minority voters.

“One impact of the proposal to ban private grants is to reduce funding for elections,” said Christian Grose, a University of Southern California professor and director of its USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, which also distributed election grants in 2020. “By reducing funding for elections, it makes it harder and it closes polling places.”

Election Offices Rush To Get In On The 2020 Grant Programs 

Much of the far-right’s ire has been pointed at The Center for Technology and Civic Life, a non-profit supported by the charity run by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. It distributed some $350 million to local election offices — in nearly 2,500 jurisdictions in total — for a variety of purposes and another $69.5 million to state elections offices to use for public education.

The USC Schwarzenegger Institute, meanwhile provided 33 counties across the South a total of $2.5 million in grants, which helped open additional polling places. Its program, which was financially backed by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), was open to any election office in a state or jurisdiction that had been covered by section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Conservative activists rushed to court last year to try to block the grant programs, with lawsuits mainly targeting big, Democratic-leaning cities that had accepted the CTCL funding. The lawsuits — usually spearheaded by a conservative group known as the Amistad Project — claimed that CTCL was purposely funneling its donations towards jurisdictions with “progressive” voting patterns, supposedly with the goal of boosting urban turnout and electing Democrats. 

Such claims ignored that the grant was open to any jurisdiction that wanted to apply for it and met its criteria. David Becker — the head of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, the think tank that distributed the funding that state offices used for public education — told TPM that he “personally contacted every single chief election officer” in the 50 states plus D.C. that were eligible for the program.

The far-right’s narrative also does not hold up under analysis of where the funding ultimately went: election departments that serve fewer than 25,000 voters made up more than half of the recipients of the CTCL local grants.

In Pennsylvania, more than half of the jurisdictions that accepted the CTCL local funding broke for Trump in 2020. Ninety-eight of the 117 Texas recipient jurisdictions voted for Trump in 2016. 

‘Zuck Bucks’

The far right’s fixation on the grants only increased as Trump embarked on his post election democracy subversion campaign. Former Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) think tank, the Capitol Research Center, blasted out a headline that claimed that “Mark Zuckerberg Changed the Outcome of the 2020 Election.” Other conservative outlets alleged that CTCL had helped build an “urban get-out-the-vote-machine of the sort that Democrats could only dream up on a bender fueled by jugs of Merlot and all the legalized pot they could smoke.”

Phill Kline, the former Kansas Attorney General and public face of the Amistad Project made several unsubstantiated claims about Zuckerberg’s supposed influence, alleging that Zuckerberg money “paid for the machines, paid for the election judges that determine what ballots will be counted and told them how many polling places to have.” Zuckerberg’s funding — often referred to as “Zuck bucks” — got coverage on Fox News as well. 

It’s not surprising that targeting those grants has become a common, albeit under-the-radar provision in the restrictive election legislation sweeping across the country.

‘Now That We’re Out Of A Crisis’

The version of the provision in Georgia’s controversial election overhaul law doesn’t ban private funding outright; instead, it prohibits local officials from accepting grants and it instructs the state elections board to come up with an “equitable” method to distribute any private donations offered for election administration. Other bills are more sweeping. The new Arizona law bans all election officials from accepting or spending private money.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s (R) signing statement expressed his appreciation for the assistance Arizona received in the 2020 election and said that election officials used the private monies “with integrity.”

But then he pivoted. “This may not have been the first time election officials relied upon private monies to conduct the election, but it should be the last,” Ducey said. “With public confidence in our elections in peril, it’s clear that elections must be pristine and above reproach — and the sole purview of government.”

Some of the proposed bans in other states are just as broad, while others create certain carve-outs, like an exception in a Wyoming bill for food that is donated to elections offices.

The “election integrity” commission convened by the Republican State Leadership Committee — the GOP entity that supports state-level Republican officials — is also advocating for prohibitions on election funding from non-government sources.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) — who is serving on the RSLC commission after speaking out against Trump’s false claims about fraud in the election — favors such bans, even though her office accepted $405,00 from the CEIR program. “We took it, but you know now that we’re out of a crisis, I think my lens is a little different,” she said.

She told TPM that a lack of restrictions on private election funding could lead to philanthropic donors having an improper influence on how elections are carried out. But she also said that there is an “inherent problem” in that “we have never addressed the funding of elections in a comprehensive way.”

It’s here where she shares some common ground with the critics of the proposed grant funding bans, as they too say they’d prefer a world where robust public funding for elections made private grants unnecessary.

“Private funding of elections is a band aid. It’s not something that actually is a real good solution for the long term,” Grose said. “The ideal solution is for states and localities to spend the right amount on elections.”

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