By Ryan Teague Beckwith | Bloomberg
When the coronavirus pandemic began in the midst of the 2020 presidential campaign season, elections officials across the U.S. faced the massive expense of buying everything from face masks for poll workers to ballot counting machines to handle a surge in vote by mail.
Congress provided only a fraction of the money needed, and recession-struck states had little left in their coffers. Elections officials found help from an unlikely source: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Meta Platforms Inc, who gave out more than $400 million in grants so states could buy the equipment needed for a unique election process.
That money has now become a target. Republicans in at least 28 states that sought and received Zuckerberg’s grants in the depths of the pandemic have now passed or are working on bills that would ban future private grants to elections officials, sometimes claiming that Zuckerberg’s donations helped sway the election for President Joe Biden.
Twenty-eight of those states had asked for and received Zuckerberg-funded grants.
The bills are part of a broader push in Republican-led states to tighten elections laws in light of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud. The ban sponsors, backed by the conservative group Heritage Action, say they are worried about private influence on the most democratic of government functions — providing the infrastructure for people to vote.
Zuckerberg, who already faces skepticism among conservatives who claim Facebook is biased against them, provided a convenient foil.
During a bill-signing in Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis derided the donations as “Zucker bucks” and said elections should be run by local and state officials, not “private tech moguls coming in and basically commandeering the machinery of the elections.”
Florida asked for and received $16.3 million in such grants in 2020.
The grants were never Plan A for the 2020 elections.
When the pandemic first hit with a presidential election looming, state officials turned to Congress first. Democrats proposed giving them as much as $3.6 billion for safety measures, but under Republican objections, that number dropped to $400 million. Some expected a second bill to hand out more money, but it never came through.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, gave $419.5 million through their philanthropic investment group, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to two non-profits that distributed the grants: the Center for Tech & Civic Life and the Center for Election Innovation & Research. In a public statement posted on Facebook in October 2020, Zuckerberg said that, ideally, elections would be publicly funded.
“To be clear, I agree with those who say that government should have provided these funds, not private citizens,” he wrote. “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.”
In response to questions about the bans states are enacting, Kaelan Richards, spokeswoman for the Chan-Zuckerberg family office, said, “When our nation’s election infrastructure faced unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic, Mark and Priscilla stepped up.” She noted that 2,500 jurisdictions in 49 states sought and received funds.
Facebook’s perceived bias is a sore subject for Zuckerberg. Meta’s social networks have in some cases avoided taking down content from Republicans that violates site rules in order to appear impartial. Zuckerberg also funded an independent oversight board to review the company’s more controversial decisions, such as the 2-year suspension of Trump’s account after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Still, Zuckerberg remains a target. In 2020, Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s Republican former governor, also offered $2.5 million in grants to expand voter access in areas with a history of racial discrimination, although his name rarely surfaces in debate over the bills.
Unlike Schwarzenegger’s money, the Zuckerberg grants were open to every state and local government. To forestall any claims of bias, staff at the two nonprofits invited jurisdictions to apply, then fully funded every request — except the state of Louisiana, which withdrew a submission to the Center for Election Innovation & Research — even going back to Zuckerberg for more money.
Local officials said the grants were critical to hire staff, educate the public about changes to voting procedures due to the pandemic and buy protective gear, drop boxes and ballot-processing equipment to handle a massive surge in absentee voting.
“For us, it was a game-changer, because the state wasn’t giving any money and the federal government wasn’t giving it,” said Bill Turner, who served as interim elections director in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 2020.
The grants faced legal challenges in multiple states that were ultimately thrown out, with an application for an injunction to halt them denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in October of 2020.
Amid Trump’s attacks on the election results, the conservative group Heritage Action announced that it would spend $10 million to persuade state lawmakers to ban any future grants, even providing them with the exact wording for their legislation. At a recent rally in Georgia, Trump attacked Zuckerberg’s funding at length, repeating conspiracy theories about drop boxes and illegally cast votes.
Some states went beyond Heritage’s outline, making it a misdemeanor or even a felony for an elections official to accept a grant.
Bans have already been signed into law in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Utah, which collectively received more than $141 million in 2020, and they’ve been passed by legislatures in Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Lindsey Curnutte, a spokeswoman for Heritage Action, said that even if the grants weren’t intended to sway the outcome of the election, the involvement of private money should raise questions.
“We want to make sure that voters feel confident in their vote and that they don’t feel like a private outside organization is influencing elections,” she said. The grants were also a target of the Thomas More Society, which filed the lawsuits, and the Capital Research Center and the Republican State Leadership Committee, which have publicized the bills to grassroots conservatives.
In Pennsylvania, Republican state lawmakers plan to introduce a bill requiring all private grant money be distributed by the state. In 2020, Chester County, a Philadelphia suburb, asked for — and received — $2.3 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to buy a machine that opens ballot envelopes, a ballot sorter, drop boxes and body cameras for staffers who retrieved ballots from them; and hiring 40 temporary workers to run two satellite offices and process ballots, among other things.
Without the private funding, Turner says the county would have taken a week to finish counting ballots instead of 36 hours. As elections director in a crucial suburb of a swing state, his nightmare scenario was the entire U.S. waiting for his staff to finish to find out who the president was.
“If somebody came up to you and said we’ll give you $2 million – no strings attached – to improve how your organization works, and you did your homework on them and there weren’t any concerns, would you take it?” he said. “I think we would have been crazy not to.”
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