Republican lawmakers across the country want to block cash-strapped local election offices from getting private funding to help administer elections, which election officials warn could cut off a vital lifeline.
At least 18 Republican-led states have banned or restricted the use of private funds for election offices, according to the right-wing think tank Capital Research Center, and Republican-led legislatures have passed similar legislation in six other states that were vetoed by Democratic governors. The push is part of a well-funded right-wing campaign by groups like Heritage Action for America, which has helped write many of the new voting restrictions imposed by Republican-led states. Some states have gone even beyond the Heritage recommendations, making it a misdemeanor or a felony for election officials to accept grants.
Private donations to election administrators proved crucial amid the pandemic after Congress provided relief funds during the primaries but rejected pleas from election officials to send more aid for the general election. Much of the private funding came from an election grant program from the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which received $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple also donated more than $60 million to the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR), which provided grants for voter education to election officials in 23 states.
The Republican bills are "based on a lie," David Becker, the founder and executive director of CEIR, said in an interview. "They're based on the idea that somehow these donations were nefarious or created problems when in fact they solved problems. They helped Biden voters and Trump voters navigate the process."
Many election officials credited the programs with "saving" the election as local officials struggled to maintain adequate staffing and resources, noting that it was essential to preventing an "election meltdown." Philadelphia was able to buy new high-speed machines to help sort mail ballots. Coconino County, Arizona, was able to pay temporary staffers to help Native Americans register to vote. Chester County, Pennsylvania, was able to afford new ballot drop boxes and body cameras that employees wore to collect the ballots.
The money also helped election officials make in-person voting safer and manage a sudden influx of mail ballots. After former President Donald Trump lost, he and his allies were quick to blame his loss on the unprecedented rate of mail voting, despite research showing little if any partisan effect from mail voting expansion. Republicans have since decried so-called "Zucker bucks" and GOP lawmakers in more than a dozen states have banned private donations entirely, which could cut off a vital lifeline for local election offices.
Republicans have baselessly accused Zuckerberg of using the funds to help Democrats. Michael Gableman, who is leading a highly dubious investigation into Wisconsin's 2020 elections, claimed that in some cities "private Zuckerberg agents" effectively "took over the election." Right-wing groups have argued that the grants largely went to Democratic areas.
But in many cases, that was the result of Trump's own pre-election conspiracy theories. Many of the grants went to urban districts with large populations as they prepared for a huge increase in mail voting. Trump's fear-mongering about potential mail voting fraud, even though it is incredibly rare, meanwhile turned off rural Republican areas from casting ballots by mail entirely.
Both the CTCL and CEIR rejected the Republicans' allegations of partisan bias.
"I've been working with election officials for about a quarter-century and we offer grants to states to assist them in educating their voters and specifically for voter education, nonpartisan, to allow them to help voters navigate the challenges of voting during a pandemic," said Becker, a former Justice Department voting rights attorney who later led the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"As a nonpartisan organization backed by Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan officials, we are confident that these frivolous charges are without merit, and look forward to continuing this critical grant program in these unprecedented times," CTCL said in a statement.
CTCL on Monday announced that it will launch the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a five-year, $80 million program that makes funding available to every election department in the country.
"The United States election infrastructure is crumbling," Tiana Epps-Johnson, the founder and executive director of Center for Tech and Civic Life, said at a TED conference this week in Vancouver, according to the Washington Post. "Election officials who serve millions of voters lack the basic technology they need to reliably do their work," she said. "It either doesn't exist or it's shockingly outdated."
Zuckerberg and Chan did not respond to a request for comment but spokesman Ben LaBolt told The New York Times on Tuesday that the couple would no longer donate to election offices, including the new CTCL initiative, and that they never intended for it to be a stream of funding for election administrators.
"As Mark and Priscilla made clear previously, their election infrastructure donation to help ensure that Americans could vote during the height of the pandemic was a one-time donation given the unprecedented nature of the crisis," LaBolt said. "They have no plans to repeat that donation."
The groups essentially stepped in to fill a void left by Congress. Lawmakers provided $400 million to help election officials during the 2020 primaries, even though the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that $4 billion was needed. Congress did not provide any additional funding for the general elections or in 2021.
"Election officials begged Congress and their state legislatures to provide adequate resources and funding for a historic and unusual and particularly high turnout and particularly difficult election as a result of the pandemic," Becker said. "And Congress and state legislatures failed to do that. As a result, philanthropy stepped in."
Congress earlier this year allocated $75 million to help election offices as part of a larger package. Becker said the amount was just a "tiny drop in the bucket."
"It really doesn't make much of an impact," he said. "That's literally less than a quarter per eligible voter in the United States."
The Brennan Center for Justice, in a report last month, estimated that it would cost more than $350 million to replace outdated polling place equipment. The Election Infrastructure Initiative, a coalition of election officials, nonprofits and others, estimated that it would cost about $49 billion over the next decade to modernize election administration and operations, including $2 billion to replace outdated voting machines, $1 billion to improve cybersecurity and nearly $1 billion to update voter registration systems.
Election officials say that Republicans who want to block private funds from elections should step up to provide taxpayer funds instead to ensure elections run smoothly and securely.
"Our local election officials delivered a secure election in 2020 in part because they had additional philanthropic funding. The best long-term solution is not to hope for last-minute funding, but regular funding from Congress," said former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican, in a statement. "Large urban cities have infrastructure needs that smaller jurisdictions simply do not. Regular, ongoing funding from Congress over 10 years can set all election departments large and small up for safe, secure and successful elections."
Zuckerberg, who has denied any involvement in how the grants were distributed, also called for increased public funding of elections.
"To be clear, I agree with those who say that government should have provided these funds, not private citizens," he said in a statement ahead of the 2020 election. "I hope that for future elections the government provides adequate funding. But absent that funding, I think it's critical that this urgent need is met."
Even though the 2020 election and election integrity has dominated political rhetoric on both sides since Trump's loss, there appears to be little movement toward boosting funding for election offices. A recent MIT study found that the U.S. spends about as much on elections every year as it does to "maintain parking facilities."
"In 2020, we supported an election department in a small New England town replace their hand-crank ballot boxes they had been using to count votes since the early 1900s," Epps-Johnson said this week. "One was literally held together by duct tape."
But election offices don't just need an infusion of cash, Becker said. They need a "regular predictable stream of funds to allow them to plan out 10, 15 years into the future. You don't hire a staff member and then worry about whether you're going to be able to pay them the second year," he continued. "Election technology has a lifespan. You need to know when you're going to be able, or need, to buy new technology. You don't buy a laptop and think it's going to last through until they put you underground."
Not only are Republican lawmakers threatening to cut off vital funds for election offices to maintain their existing operations, some state legislatures are looking to foist new unfunded mandates on election administrators to prevent voter fraud, which many continue to maintain tainted the 2020 election despite extensive investigations, recounts, audits and lawsuits that have failed to turn up any evidence.
In some states, Republicans want to require hand counting of all ballots, which is much slower and less accurate than machine counting and would require a massive increase in staffing.
Republicans in key swing states like Nevada are pushing to require all ballots to be hand-counted, a process that is vastly time-consuming and much less accurate than machine counts, and would require a massive increase in staffing. Republicans in states like Arizona are pushing legislation that would require special paper for ballots to prevent fraud, adding additional costs to election offices without providing any additional funding.
"It's not just unfunded mandates, it's a reduction in budget," Becker said, noting that some states are threatening to impose fines on election workers who don't abide by new restrictions. "The fictional world in which some legislators live, where these mandates can be placed on election officials without additional funding and, in fact, with restrictions on additional funding, is very dangerous," he said.
But even blocking funds without additional mandates threatens to shutter polling places, reduce access to early voting or mail ballots, and create other potential pitfalls. Not to mention inflation: The cost of paper to print ballots has gone up by about 50% alone, according to the Washington Post, already resulting in shortages in states like Texas.
While most of the pressure has been on Congress to provide assistance to election administrators, Becker warned that it was important not to let state legislatures "off the hook."
"States want autonomy in elections, they want to have control over their own elections and they get very upset when it's perceived that the federal government is seeking to take control away from them," he said. "But if you want control, you also have responsibility — and with that responsibility comes the responsibility to pay for the necessary administration of elections."