By Fredreka Schouten, CNN
Patty Hansen, who helped run an election in Coconino County, Ariz., For 17 years, spun out spending last year.
She ran radio and newspaper ads in English and Navajo, promoting voting options. She hired 19 additional temporary workers to help Navajo Nation residents register to vote and vote, up from three she normally employs in a typical election year. And she set up pop-up spots at trading posts and gas stations where residents could cast their ballots.
A grant of $ 614,000 from a then little-known nonprofit, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, aided these efforts.
It paid off: Turnout in the vast county crossed by the Grand Canyon has jumped to nearly 82%, from around 75% four years earlier.
“We were really proud,” Hansen told CNN. “The 2020 election was the most difficult election I have ever participated in, but it was the only election where I had enough money to do what we wanted to do.”
But accepting outside funding is now against the law for Hansen and all other election officials in this battlefield state. Arizona is one of at least 11 Republican-led states that have banned or restricted the use of private funding in future elections, as partisan warfare over the 2020 presidential election spreads to nearly every aspects of electoral administration.
Other states that have passed laws this year to ban or limit private election funding include Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio , Tennessee and Texas. And Kansas law goes further, making it a felony for a government official to accept or spend private money to help run an election.
The push to ban private money – aided by 2021 legislative manuals written by Heritage Action for America and other conservative groups – stems, in part, from Republican suspicion of the source of 2020 funding: the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple donated $ 350 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life to help election officials and voters safely navigate the coronavirus pandemic last year.
Republicans argue the social media giant Zuckerberg oversees is suppressing conservative voices. And they called the grants skewing voter turnout in Democratic areas in a way that helped Biden ascend to the White House.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who co-chairs a commission on electoral integrity established by the Republican State Leadership Committee, is among the critics of private funding. The commission encouraged states to ban this practice.
“It really opens the door to some bad things,” he said of private election grants.
“Let’s say someone is on the ballot or someone who is close to someone who is on the ballot says, ‘I’m going to put half a million dollars or a million dollars in a field specific, “” said Hargett. “It could really tip the balance towards voter turnout in some areas and put others at a disadvantage.”
Grant administrators deny any political bias in their 2020 actions. In total, grants totaling more than $ 340 million were made to nearly 2,500 election offices in 49 states, including 1,300 to election agencies that served less than 25,000 registered voters, according to officials at the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
“Every election service that applied to the Covid-19 response grant program received a grant,” said Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director of the center.
Ben LaBolt, spokesperson for Zuckerberg and Chan, said neither had participated “in the process of determining which jurisdictions have received funds” and noted that the centre’s status as a charitable organization in nonprofit prohibited him “from engaging in partisan activities.”
Zuckerberg also said the funding was a one-time effort to help local officials deal with the unprecedented challenge of holding an election amid the pandemic. It supports public funding.
Despite this, Republican lawmakers in some key states are pushing forward bills to ensure that the distribution of so-called “Zuck bucks” to local election offices – or the equivalent – never happens again.
A bill pending in North Carolina, for example, would prohibit the use of private funds for the conduct of elections or “the employment of persons on a temporary basis” to assist.
However, other legislative efforts have encountered obstacles.
Earlier this summer, Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a measure approved by the Republican-controlled legislature that would have banned local and state governments from accepting most election grants without permission from the state electoral commission.
The proposal would also have required Wisconsin to distribute the money across the state on a per capita basis.
Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said her community needed a bigger grant. She said the $ 3.4 million in private dollars helped her pay allowances to election workers last year, buy seven additional tabulators for mail-in ballots and rent two more. The equipment proved crucial, she said, on election night as her office processed a flood of postal ballots.
Wisconsin law prohibits election officials from getting a head start on the processing and counting of postal ballots. This work cannot begin before 7 a.m. on polling day. Without the additional tabulators, she said, “it would have taken days and days to count the postal ballots.”
His office delivered its final results to Milwaukee County at 3:30 a.m. the day after the election, Woodall-Vogg said.
Calls for more public funding
Local officials have “ongoing funding issues” that need to be addressed, including the cost of maintaining election materials, said Susan Gill, retired Florida County Election Officer who chairs the National Association of Election Officials.
She said local authorities were using private grants “for very good purposes.”
States receive federal election funding pots. Last year, Congress provided $ 400 million in emergency funding to help run an election during the pandemic – far less than the roughly $ 4 billion that liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice election experts have estimated might be needed.
And the federal government has distributed over $ 800 million in recent years to help election officials improve security and guard against cyber attacks and other threats. (A recent report by the United States Electoral Assistance Commission found that much had not been spent as of September 30, 2020, according to the most recent data available.)
The Center for Tech and Civic Life helped launch an “electoral infrastructure initiative” to urge Congress to provide a steady flow of money – $ 20 billion over a decade – to help modernize elections, the lion’s share going to local departments. (So far, this has not been successful. The money has not been included in a $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that the Senate approved this month.)
Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and expert in electoral administration, said the use of private money for a basic government function added an “improper … bake sale for democracy” element to the 2020 election .
But he said some states appear to be rushing to cut private funds without also trying to figure out what the level of public funding is adequate for the elections to run smoothly and appropriate the money to do so.
Back in Arizona, Hansen, a Democrat, said she was disappointed with the ban and will likely have to reduce voter awareness.
“I don’t understand it. We can show where we spent the money, ”she said. “Frankly, I’d much rather take money from a nonprofit, if they’re willing to give it to us, than put taxpayer dollars in it.
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