BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images
For election officials, private sector money ahead of the 2020 election was a lifeline.
In Philadelphia, the city was able to purchase new high-speed machines to help sort ballots by ward and precinct, thanks to some $10 million it received in donated funds.
In Coconino County, Arizona, the money paid for temporary staff to help Native American voters register and vote. In Chester County, Pennsylvania, he paid for body cameras for election workers to retrieve mail-in ballots from drop boxes.
But a year and a half later, that lifeline has also spawned a slew of conspiracies and efforts in dozens of states to ban the kind of financial aid local election officials say have saved them.
The pandemic was killing more than 1,000 people a day that fall, and the risks it posed made voting exponentially more expensive as officials raced to implement mail options and make in-person precincts more sure.
But Congress has not allocated more money to help organize the general election, after an initial allocation in the primaries. This left local election officials desperate for other sources of funding.
“I know the advantage that this [private] funding provided,” said Al Schmidt, a former Republican election commissioner in Philadelphia. “And I can’t understand what a mess the 2020 election would have been if we didn’t have the equipment that we were able to buy.”
But for many Republican lawmakers across the country, using private money to run a government operation was unacceptable. And now, in many states, that won’t happen again.
Bans are spreading in the United States
Since voting ended in 2020, more than a dozen states — all with Republican-controlled state legislatures — have enacted laws that prevent local election officials from accepting donations as they have. before this election. In at least five other states, Republican legislatures have attempted to do the same, but have been blocked by vetoes from Democratic governors.
Much of the money given before the election, $350 million, came from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan. It was distributed through a grant program run by a nonprofit organization called the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
Facebook and Zuckerberg have come under fire since the 2016 election for undermining democracy by allowing misinformation to thrive on the platform.
Republicans have falsely seized on Zuckerberg’s donations as a sign that the tech executive interfered in the voting process in 2020 to benefit Democrats, though there’s no evidence that’s the case.
Much of the money did help states expand mail-in voting operations, which Republicans have sought to characterize as partisan in favor of Democrats, but research has shown that there is traditionally very little or no partisan effect to such mail-in expansions. access to vote.
Michael Gableman, a former conservative Wisconsin state Supreme Court justice whom the GOP-controlled state legislature hired to investigate the 2020 election, recently released a report that incorrectly implied that donations private amounted to “unlawful corruption”.
“I was shocked to see how deeply entrenched Zuckerberg’s private agents or employees are in the administration of the elections in these cities to one degree or another. In some cities they have taken control of the elections” , Gableman said in a recent interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission issued a seven-page statement refuting Gableman’s claims shortly after, noting that a number of lawsuits have been filed challenging the legality of the donations ahead of the 2020 election and none yielded.
Republicans also accused the CTCL of political bias, as a significantly larger share of donation money went to districts won by Joe Biden than by former President Trump.
But in many cases, those jurisdictions were heavily populated cities that were also rushing more frantically to ramp up their mail-in voting operations, as it became clear early in the year that more Democrats than Republicans would want to vote by mail. . Trump’s misinformation campaign against mail-in voting has tainted the practice of many GOP voters.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life has awarded grants to all electoral jurisdictions that have applied for them.
“We invited every election department across the country to apply for a grant if they needed one,” said Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life. “Ultimately, we received approximately 2,500 applications from election departments in 49 states and awarded funding to each one.”
An analysis of three post-election swing states by APM Reports also found no consistent difference in voter turnout between counties that received grants versus those that did not.
A financial puzzle persists
Basically, everyone in the electoral community, including Epps-Johnson, wants these types of private subsidies to be unnecessary, whether they are legal or not.
“We’ve always agreed that the best way to fund election services is with strong, predictable public funding,” Epps-Johnson said.
The problem is that the predictable public funding hasn’t come, even as state legislatures rush to cut off that other source of funding for election officials.
A recent MIT study noted that the United States spends roughly the same amount each year on its elections as it does on parking lot maintenance.
“While the legislatures have addressed the issue of the prohibition on the ability to supplement the budgets of electoral departments, they have not at the same time taken care to address the underlying problem that made our work necessary in the first place” , added Epps-Johnson.
Ever since revelations about electoral vulnerabilities emerged from the 2016 election, officials have begged Congress not only for more money to support the vote, but also for annual stipends instead of one-time lump sums.
In 2020, Congress allocated $400 million to help election officials respond to the coronavirus. He sent no money in 2021, and this year the federal government sent an additional $75 million as part of President Biden’s recent spending package.
“The thing [election officials] what they want is consistency, something they can set their budget clocks on,” Chris Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said in 2019. “If the federal government wants to play in this space, we have to be reliable partners.”
Experts also say the $75 million Congress has sent to support the vote this year does not come close to what is needed. Schmidt called it “inadequate,” noting that administering elections in Philadelphia alone costs about $20 million a year.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimated in a recent report that it would cost more than $350 million just to replace outdated equipment at polling places nationwide. Another study by the Election Infrastructure Initiative estimated that election offices would need about $50 billion over the next decade to modernize and organize voting.
“There’s an argument that the funding should come from government, so you’re not exposing yourself to criticism that you’re somehow persuaded by a partisan group… Perception-wise, it’s more clean,” said David Maeda, Minnesota’s state chief election officer. “The problem has always been to get [funding].”
Editor’s note: Facebook’s parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content.