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Legislators ban private grants for elections yet leave elections underfunded

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Voters enter a polling place Nov. 3, 2020, in Maricopa County, Arizona — one of the 2,500 jurisdictions that received private election grants that year.

Courtney Pedroza / Getty Images

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

Have you read about the drama in Green Bay, Wisconsin? In short: The mayor’s former (unsuccessful) Republican opponent is leading a recall effort against him, largely because the city accepted grant money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to pay 2020 election costs. And yes, I know what’s happening in Green Bay — and other places around the country — is weighted down by conspiracies that have been swirling for the past year and a half, and we’ll address that next week. But this week, let’s take a step back and look at the implications for elections and the people responsible for running them.

Green Bay officials’ decision to accept the CTCL money set off controversy from the beginning. In 2020, the conservative Wisconsin Voters Alliance sued to block grants to five major cities in the state, but the judge dismissed their concerns. He wrote that the plaintiff’s argument — essentially that private actors could sway election policy and administration inappropriately if allowed to fund them — was mainly a policy one, and the court couldn’t act unless state legislators banned such grants. “Absent such a prohibition, the Court lacks the authority to enjoin them from accepting such assistance,” the judge wrote

And so that’s what state legislatures across the country have set out to do, with a vengeance. So far, more than 15 states have banned or restricted election administrators from accepting grants from private organizations, according to Capital Research and NPR, though some governors have vetoed such bills. In several other states, Republican legislators have bills pending

The cheap conspiracy wrapper has a legitimate concern inside: It is not ideal that one very rich man’s foundation nearly single-handedly financially rescued the 2020 elections. “Honestly, I don’t know what we would have done without it,” Bill Turner, the acting director of voting services in Chester County, Pa., told NPR after the 2020 election.

As courts have repeatedly found, there is no evidence that Mark Zuckerberg had any influence at all in how the money was spent, and every single county who asked for money got the full amount they requested. There was no favoritism, there was no partisan boost. Counties spent the money on election materials like voter education, mail ballot equipment, and personal protective gear.

But what if Mark Zuckerberg had been Mike Lindell? Or Donald Trump? Or any off-the-rack billionaire with a partisan agenda?

It is, on the face of it, a bit surprising that such a thing happened and that there were so few laws regulating it. The grants were, as CTCL would tell you, a desperate move during desperate times — and only after federal and state governments made clear they weren’t stepping up. 

“The pandemic was a once-in-a-generation type of emergency for local election officials all across the country. Fortunately, philanthropy helped many election departments make ends meet and support safe and inclusive elections,” CTCL co-founder Tianna Epps-Johnson told Votebeat. “If there is one lesson we take away from 2020, I hope policymakers everywhere have learned that we need to do better to ensure consistent, reliable public funding for election offices so that election departments can better handle whatever challenges come next.”

In other words, an altogether better solution would be for the government itself to appropriately fund the public’s elections.

The obvious problem is that governments are not doing this. So far, none of the states that banned outside funding have come forward with their own election funding. CTCL estimates that states need more than $53 billion (with a b) for election infrastructure updates, technology, and staffing.

In 2020, Congress gave states $400 million to tackle COVID at the polls. Zuckerberg — for context — gave more than $300 million entirely by himself. 

His giving didn’t exactly prompt Congress to follow up with new spending. In fact, in 2021, the federal government gave states $0 after dangling (as we reported) $10 billion in funding over 10 years. President Biden has brought that figure back as part of his proposed budget, but that doesn’t mean much — presidents rarely get everything they want, and Congress is under no obligation to do it. 

Republicans are already kicking up quite the dust storm over unspent funds dispersed ahead of 2020. Why should we give more money if they haven’t spent what we’ve given them? they ask. That’s a reasonable question if you have no idea how government procurement works, and one presumes Republicans currently within the government actually do. There are rules and an inevitably long procurement process. The county clerk cannot go to Office Depot with her credit card and buy ballot paper. Voting machines are not for sale at Best Buy. 

These processes take months and often years and that is exactly the reason — as any elections official will tell you — the public should assure funding well into the future. Election administrators must be able to plan right now for voting machines they need in five years. How can they reasonably do that if they don’t know what their budget will be from one year to the next? 

The state legislators driving the bans — whether driven by real concerns about private funding or feverish conspiracy theories about these grants in particular — are ignoring the realities that made them necessary in the first place. 

The easiest way to make sure those officials don’t take private money to pay for elections? Make sure they don’t need it. 

Back Then

Unlike later presidential commissions on elections — Obama’s Presidential Commission on Election Administration or Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — the Commission on Federal Election Reform co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III was both private and entirely privately funded. Republicans continue to highlight the 2005 recommendations of this commission — which, for example, recommended national voter ID. The commission sought to advance the work of the Help America Vote Act and address the floor-level public confidence in America’s elections following the chaotic 2000 and 2004 elections. Among their less-heralded recommendations? More than a billion dollars in funding for America’s election officials. They didn’t get it. 

In Other Voting News

  • Former President Donald Trump hosted a heck of a party on Tuesday night, complete — the Washington Post reports — with pigs in a blanket, fried shrimp poppers, and conspiracy theories. A gathering of the country’s biggest voter “integrity” activists gathered for a private screening of a 40-minute documentary called “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”
  • The conspiracy theorists have not contained themselves to Mar-a-Lago. A group of Trump supporters are encouraging counties to hand-count their ballots, tossing machines for both voting and counting. It’s a terrible idea. You’ll remember we talked about this in the Texas panhandleAdvocates in Cody, Wyoming, are now hot on the trail for paper ballot counting — a move a local activist says will ensure the accuracy of the machine-tabulated vote total. She’s thinking of audits, which the state has already failed to pass
  • Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued his initial report on the 2020 investigation this week, assuring Senate President Karen Fann he had “left no stone unturned.” The 12-page report did not mention Cyber Ninjas and found no evidence of malfeasance. Brnovich alluded to vague mismanagement of early and mailed ballots. Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates and Recorder Stephen Richer responded here. Meanwhile, reporter Jeremy Duda (in one of his final pieces for the AZ Mirror) has a warning of actual problems on the horizon in Arizona
  • In a 58-page ruling, a federal judge in Montana delivered Democrats a win by temporarily blocking four GOP-backed laws from going into effect. The bills would have halted same-day voter registration, ended paid ballot collection, removed student IDs as acceptable forms of identification at the polls and stopped anyone under the age of 18 from sending in their ballot even if they’d turn 18 by Election Day. 
  • Lawmakers in Georgia have passed a bill giving the Georgia Bureau of Investigation authority to investigate allegations of election fraud. Investigators in the secretary of state’s office already had this job, so it’s not clear what this change will actually do. 
  • Nine people in Alachua County, Fla., have been charged with election crimes and several others are under investigation. A citizen with a history of filing similar complaints brought the names to the county. The charges follow intense confusion in the state after the state’s voters restored felons’ voting rights, only to have the Republican-controlled Legislature pass a bill requiring all restitution and fines to be paid before regaining voter eligibility. 
  • The Maine Legislature has passed a bill that will offer additional protections for election officials. It is on the way to the governor, who is expected to sign it. 

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