Campaign

Republican legislators target private sector election grants

Republican state legislators are promoting legislation in states across the country that would ban local government officials from accepting money from private sector groups that would aid in election administration.

A massive election overhaul package in Georgia included the ban on private funding last month. The Arizona legislature passed a measure banning outside funding for elections operations last week. The Texas legislature is working on its own measure, part of a broader overhaul of election administration rules that Democrats have castigated as a means of excluding minority and low-income voters.

The measures come after groups funded by wealthy benefactors, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, the physician Priscilla Chan, pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into grants to local election offices in the weeks and months before the 2020 elections.

The couple donated about $350 million to the nonpartisan Center for Tech and Civic Life, which gave grants to more than 2,500 county and city election administration offices after officials publicly worried that rounds of coronavirus relief packages did not adequately fund emergency contingency plans in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Republican legislators who promoted the bans on local offices accepting help said they were concerned with the appearance of impropriety and with the idea that an outside entity should fund such a bedrock mission of government.

"This is a core government function that needs to be treated that way. We don't allow private organizations to come in and fund a particular cause just because that money is available. It doesn't look good. Perception is important," said Arizona state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), who chairs the elections committee and who backed the bill. "What would the left say if [the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council] was giving grants to counties to run elections? I don't think they would like that. I'm just going to go out on a limb."

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed the bill Friday.

A similar provision is a part of a comprehensive overhaul of Texas election practices making its way through the legislature this year.

"We want to make it clear that elections in Texas are not for sale," state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), the bill's prime sponsor, said of his measure. "It's so fundamental and it's so important that we don't even want the appearance of undue influence."

But local elections officials said they had used the money for mundane expenditures, like hiring additional poll workers for an election that turned out more voters than any other in American history or increasing security and transparency initiatives.

Kim Olsen, the deputy elections director in La Paz County, Ariz., said her office had used a $17,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to purchase livestreaming equipment to broadcast the county's central vote tallying location so that interested residents could watch elections officials handle the huge number of absentee ballots that had to be tallied once they arrived at elections headquarters. The previous system, Olsen said, went down weeks before Arizona's August 2020 primary.

"The Elections Department did not have the funds available in its budget to afford the new equipment so the grant came at a perfect time. Arizona law requires central count centers to be lived streamed so the public can view the tabulation of ballots," Olsen said in an email.

Asked whether she felt any pressure from the Center to run elections any differently than in the past, Olsen said no.

"There was definitely no pressure," she wrote. "If you had everything you needed and enough money in your budget to not worry about any extra expenses then you would have no need to apply for additional grant money.  However, I truly believe the pandemic of COVID-19 and the fear of keeping everyone as safe and protected as possible was the only thing in the minds of elections departments across the states."

Patty Hansen, the chief elections administrator in Coconino County, said her office had used $431,000 in grant money to pay for personal protective equipment for poll workers and voters, recruitment funds for new poll workers, voting materials in languages other than English and a nonpartisan voter education drive.

"This grant allowed us to expand many of our activities. This was especially important to us because of the pandemic," Hansen said. "I'm very disappointed that the Arizona Legislature passed legislation that would prevent us from accepting grants from organizations like CTCL in the future."

Wendy John, the Graham County recorder, said her office had used a grant from the Center to pay poll workers an additional $50 for their work on Election Day and to pay for four additional drop boxes in tribal and rural areas.

"Without the Civic Life grant our poll workers would not have been compensated for their service and the county budget would be been impacted," John said.

Nine of Arizona's 15 counties accepted grants from the Zuckerberg-Chan-funded Center. One hundred sixteen of Texas's 254 counties and 43 of Georgia's 159 counties accepted similar grants.

Rural La Paz County, along Arizona's western border with California, gave then-President Trump 69 percent of the vote in 2020, a slightly higher percentage than he won there in 2016. Voters in Graham County, east of Phoenix, gave Trump 72 percent of the vote in 2020, more than the 67 percent it gave him in 2016.

Coconino County, home of Flagstaff, gave President Biden 61 percent of the vote last year, up from 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's 56 percent.

In an email, Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, said private funding of government functions was nothing unusual.

"Private funding is used to supplement a variety of government services where there are funding shortfalls, including schools and libraries," Epps-Johnson said. "We hope that as states consider the issue of private funding, they solve the real long-standing problem, which is making sure that election departments are fully funded so they are able to deliver a professional, inclusive, secure voting process for all of their voters."

The use of private money has become the latest battleground in the nationwide fight over voting rights. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) criticized Ducey's decision to sign the bill banning grants as hypocritical after he helped her office win a $4.8 million grant from the Center for Election Innovation and Research. The group is led by a bipartisan board of election reformers including Trey Grayson, the candidate Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backed in the 2010 Republican primary against now-Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

"I recognized that the Governor has found himself caught up in the politics of the moment, and I am deeply disappointed he has preferred to satisfy the conspiracy theorists within his own party instead of taking a stand," Hobbs said. "I look forward to the Governor fighting for state funding for elections in the upcoming budget."

Ugenti-Rita said the local election administrators should have been prepared for the challenges they faced during the pandemic after the first round of coronavirus relief funding allocated $8 million for her state's counties to handle the extra burden.

"It's hard for me to believe that they were desperate, that they couldn't run their elections and had no choice but to take outside, out of state money. And if they're in that kind of precarious spot, the real question is, why are you there? Why haven't you been budgeting appropriately and getting ahead of this issue?" Ugenti-Rita said in an interview. "This is their job, to make sure they budget appropriately."

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