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For voting officials, money from the private sector leading up to the 2020 election was a lifeline.
In Philadelphia, the city was able to buy new high-speed machines to help sort mail ballots by ward and precinct, thanks to the roughly $10 million it received in donated funds.
In Coconino County, Ariz., the money paid for temporary staff to assist Native American voters to register and vote. In Chester County, Pa., it paid for body cameras for election workers picking up mail 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 help local election officials say saved them.
The pandemic was killing more than 1,000 people per day that fall, and the risks it posed made voting exponentially more expensive as officials hurried to implement mail options and make in-person precincts safer.
But Congress didn’t allocate more money to help make the general election happen, after an initial allotment during the primaries. That left local election officials desperate for other funding sources.
“I know the benefit that that [private] funding provided,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican former election commissioner in Philadelphia. “And I cannot comprehend what a mess the 2020 election would have been if we did not have the equipment that we were able to purchase.”
But for many Republican legislators across the country, using private money to run a government operation was unacceptable. And now, in many states, it won’t happen again.
Bans spreading across the U.S.
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 like they did leading up to that election. In at least five other states, Republican legislatures have tried to do the same, but they have been blocked by the vetoes of Democratic governors.
Much of the money donated leading up to 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 called the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
Facebook and Zuckerberg have been criticized since the 2016 election for damaging democracy by allowing misinformation to flourish 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 advantage Democrats, although there is no evidence that is the case.
Much of the money did go to helping states expand vote-by-mail operations, which Republicans have sought to paint as partisan in favor of Democrats, but research has shown there is traditionally very little if any partisan effect to such voting access expansions.
Michael Gableman, a conservative former state Supreme Court judge in Wisconsin who the GOP-controlled state legislature there hired to investigate the 2020 election, recently released a report that falsely implied the private donations amounted to “illegal bribery.”
“I’ve been shocked at how deeply… embedded the private Zuckerberg agents or employees came in actually administering the elections in those cities to one degree or another. In some cities, they took over the election,” said Gableman in a recent interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission released a seven-page statement rebutting Gableman’s claims shortly after, noting that a number of lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the donations prior to the 2020 election and none were successful.
Republicans have also accused the CTCL of political bias, because significantly more of the donation money was allocated to districts won by Joe Biden than by former president Trump.
But in many cases, those jurisdictions were cities with large populations that were also scrambling more frantically to ramp up their vote-by-mail operations, since it became clear early in the year that more Democrats than Republicans would want to vote by mail. Trump’s misinformation campaign against mail voting tainted the practice for many GOP voters.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life gave grant funding to every election jurisdiction that applied for it.
“We invited every single election department in the entire country to apply for grant funding if they needed it,” said Tiana Epps-Johnson, the executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life. “Ultimately, we received about 2,500 applications from election departments across 49 states and awarded funding to all of them.”
An analysis of three swing states after the election by APM Reports also found no consistent difference in turnout rates among counties that received grants versus those that didn’t.
A financial conundrum persists
Basically everyone in the elections community, including Epps-Johnson, wants these sorts of private grants to be unnecessary, regardless of whether or not they are legal.
“We have always agreed that the best way to fund election departments is robust, predictable public funding,” said Epps-Johnson.
The problem is that predictable public funding hasn’t come, even as state legislatures rush to cut off this other funding source for voting officials.
A recent MIT study noted that the U.S. spends roughly the same amount each year on its elections as it does on maintaining parking facilities.
“While legislatures have been taking up the issue of banning the ability to supplement election departments budgets, they haven’t at the same time made sure to address the underlying issue that made our work necessary in the first place,” Epps-Johnson added.
Since revelations about election vulnerabilities came out of the 2016 election, officials have been begging Congress, not only for more money to support voting, but annual allocations instead of one-time lump sums.
In 2020, Congress allocated $400 million to help election officials respond to the coronavirus. It sent no money in 2021, and this year the federal government sent another $75 million as part of the recent spending package signed by President Biden.
“The thing [election officials] want is consistency, something they can set their budget clocks to,” said Chris Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in 2019. “If the federal government is going to play in this space, we have to be dependable partners.”
Experts also say the $75 million that Congress sent to support voting this year doesn’t come close to what’s needed. Schmidt called it “inadequate,” noting that administering elections in Philadelphia alone costs about $20 million per year.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimated in a recent report that it would cost more than $350 million just to replace outdated polling place equipment nationwide. Another study from the Election Infrastructure Initiative estimated that election offices need roughly $50 billion over the next decade to modernize and run voting.
“There is an argument that funding should come from the government, so you don’t open yourself up to criticism that you’re being somehow persuaded by some partisan group… Perception-wise, it’s cleaner,” said David Maeda, the state elections director in Minnesota. “The problem has always been getting that [funding].”
Editor’s note: Facebook’s parent company Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.
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