Private groups shouldn’t train public election administrators

A vote sign is seen during early voting in Cleveland, Ohio
Associated Press/Tony Dejak
A man votes during early voting March 13, 2020, in Cleveland.

There’s a new potential threat to election integrity. In 2020, the Center for Tech and Civic Life distributed more than $350 million from Mark Zuckerberg for election administration in specific counties, an unprecedented move that avoided transparency and may have helped to influence the election. Following nationwide pushback, the group has spun off a rebranded effort that’s devoting another $80 million to train and support select election administrators, with no oversight or accountability. States should immediately ban such actions to protect the integrity of the November midterms.

This new campaign, the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, launched in April and will “identify… local election departments” and provide “coaching,” with the goal of “improv[ing] upon practices and procedures.” It will focus on the whole of election infrastructure, including technology, while providing “custom support” to local officials. Yet training public officials to run elections is not the role of a private organization. It is the role of state chief election officers — normally the secretary of state or an election commission — or their designees, who are accountable to voters.

All local election departments are invited to apply to the alliance, yet they will then enter its “verification and review process.” This could allow an unelected, unaccountable organization to prioritize some counties and regions over others, according to what the alliance calls “a set of common values and standards.” Voters have no say in those values and standards, or insight into what they are. Administrators who receive this unspecified training and support can pursue efforts and obtain resources and equipment that their peers cannot, potentially leading to different outcomes in different places.

This happened in the 2020 elections, when roughly 2,500 counties received a slice of Zuckerberg’s donation. Many reportedly used this windfall to engage in targeted voter registration, get-out-the-vote campaigns, and other activities that inherently can influence elections. Our research finds that in Georgia, Arizona, Missouri and elsewhere, much of this money went to left-leaning counties, and in states such as Pennsylvania, blue counties reportedly received nearly 400 percent more than red ones. Common sense says this funding helped to shift vote totals in key races.

Since 2020, 19 states have banned such private funding, some of them on a bipartisan basis, and more may do so soon. Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the danger and want to ensure voters’ trust in election outcomes. Yet the new alliance, with its $80 million initial outlay, looks to be designed to sidestep these bans by funneling benefits directly to election administrators, rather than to counties where the money could be tracked, recorded and later scrutinized.

That’s even more concerning than what happened in 2020. Providing training and resources to individual administrators can affect how they do their jobs, including the outreach and engagement they have with voters. Connecting the trainees with one another can add to the danger. Officials in one state could adopt practices from those in other states, with no input from their elected officials or the voting public. Where is the accountability that democracy demands?

Consider the analogy of education. Over the past two years, many parents have come to realize that some K-12 instruction pushes divisive ideology onto their children. The result has been outrage and an effort by parents in several states to reclaim control over what their children are taught. Yet, while parents can recall school board members and possibly reform teachers unions via their elected representatives, voters have no say in the workings of a private group that spends millions of dollars on election administration. That can influence key election officials without input — or pushback — from voters. Whatever else that is, it’s not democracy.

The alliance is in its early stages, so it’s unclear how much money it has spent or how many local officials have applied or begun participating in its work. But state lawmakers should not wait to find out. Legislatures still in session should ban this activity without delay, and in states where lawmakers have gone home for summer, governors should convene a special session or take administrative action. States that have enacted a ban on private funding should clarify that supporting election administrators is included in the prohibition.

Private organizations should never train election administrators outside of the accountable control of state governments. That basic democratic truth should be enshrined in law and enforced before the November midterms get any closer.

Tarren Bragdon is president and CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a nonprofit organization based in Naples, Fla. Follow him on Twitter @TarrenBragdon.

Tags 2022 midterms election administration election influence Mark Zuckerberg voter accountability

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