Nationwide Battle Escalates Over Private Millions Bankrolling Public Elections

Democrats want to continue allowing private money to fund public elections. Republicans want to limit the practice, which they say gave Joe Biden an unfair and perhaps decisive advantage over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential contest.

So far, at least 10 Republican-controlled states have passed laws to prohibit or limit the use of private money in public elections. These include the swing states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. In another swing state, North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed such legislation, as did other Democratic governors.

During 2020, nonprofits donated more than $400 million to state and local election boards to support their work and get out the vote. Most of the funding, about $350 million, came from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, distributed primarily through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a Chicago-based progressive-led group that includes former operatives of President Barack Obama.

Democrats and others contend that such money is necessary to support the work of underfunded election boards facing the added challenges of the pandemic. Republicans assert that the private grants were disproportionately allocated to counties eventually won by Biden, a mismatch that hurt them in 2020 and, if continued, would damage their chances in future elections.

“Our elections should never be for sale, but they were in 2020,” Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., said last month, calling the private funding a “partisan exercise.”

The Center for Tech and Civic Life says the grants were available to any entity that applied. Among other things, the money went to get-out-the-vote efforts and tallying mail-in ballots. In some cases, it allowed Democratic operatives in key states to help run the election, including the counting of votes.

The center was “very lenient regarding what we could spend the money on,” Deb Cox, a Lowndes County, Ga., elections supervisor, told RealClearInvestigations in May. The county paid off a $15,000 legal bill with some of the grant. “They put virtually no restrictions on it, as long as it relates to the election.”

The center reports that it distributed the grants to elections offices in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Included in its election funding, it said, was $25 million from the New Venture Fund, a progressive nonprofit affiliated with Arabella Advisors, which coordinates a politically liberal, so-called “dark money” network.

With federal election funding distributed primarily based on voting-age population, most money tends to flow to logistically challenged cities and larger counties—often Democrat-run. This was the case in 2020 and 2018, both years when Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars for election-security upgrades. The outsize private grants in 2020, however, were not covered by transparency laws governing federal spending.

The Capital Research Center, a conservative group that describes its study of election 2020 as “exposing how one billionaire privatized a presidential election,” estimates that in Georgia, the Zuckerberg-aligned center gave $5.06 per capita in counties that went for Biden and 98 cents in counties that went for Trump.

In Pennsylvania, another swing state, the group estimates that the center gave $3.11 per capita in counties that went for Biden, while Trump counties received 57 cents per capita. In Arizona, the group says, the breakdown was $5.83 for Biden counties and $1.29 for Trump counties.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life’s funding allocation “reflects those who chose to apply,” its executive director, Tiana Epps-Johnson, told the Associated Press. “Every eligible election department that was verified as legitimate was approved for a grant,” the center said on its website. Epps-Johnson did not respond to an email seeking an interview.

Interested parties are monitoring the issue ahead of this year’s midterms. According to the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have enacted 34 laws to “make it harder” for Americans to vote. It says 25 states have enacted 62 new laws that make it easier to vote, including expanded mail-ballot drop-off points and less stringent mail-ballot verification. The Brennan Center did not respond to an interview request.

Lawmakers in 27 states this year passed legislation specifically to make mail-in voting easier, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which declined an interview request. A review of these laws finds many are returning to pre-pandemic policies that were uprooted as a flurry of states insisted it was unsafe for voters in 2020 to cast ballots as they had before. Other new rules call for stricter monitoring of mail-in ballot procedures in addition to bans or limits on private grants.

The private funding on its own is not as problematic as the appearance it creates, based on the originator of the money, said Ilya Shapiro, director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute.

“If just one group is providing the money, it has the look of being tainted,” Shapiro said. “Part of election integrity is the perception.”

This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published Jan. 12.

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