In 2020, private grants, largely funded by donations from Facebook’s founder, helped pay for elections across the country.
Now Republican lawmakers in Arizona and other states are voting to prohibit election workers from ever accepting such funds again.
The Arizona House approved HB 2569 last week in a party-line vote. The legislation would ban election officials at all levels of government — city, county and state — from receiving private funds to help pay for any aspect of election operations, including voter registration.
Republican Rep. Jake Hoffman, the bill’s sponsor, said it’s a matter of election integrity. That means keeping elections free of influence or interference, he said.
“We’ve heard that over the last four years. Our colleagues across the aisle have been adamant there [was] foreign interference, Russian interference in the election in 2016,” Hoffman said. “We are all on the same page. There should not be any type of foreign influence or interference in our election system.”
For Republicans in Arizona, as well as Georgia and North Dakota, the alleged interference came from a domestic source — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who donated more than $400 million to nonprofits that in turn distributed grants to state and local election officials.
The bill’s supporters in Arizona can’t point to an instance when the grants were spent in a partisan manner, but they warn that even the perception of Zuckerberg’s influence is problematic, and reason enough to adopt a law ensuring the government is the sole source of election funding.
To an extent, Democrats like Rep. Kelli Butler agree.
“[It] sounded like we all came to an agreement that it is the duty of taxpayers to fund the election,” she said. “But the fact is, we aren’t doing that right now. And when we don’t have enough money to do that, I can’t blame them [election officials] in the last election for seeking the funds they needed to perform those critical functions and keep our elections safe.”
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, watched that situation play out across the country last fall as the November election loomed in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never seen a circumstance before where the federal government and state governments refuse to step up to provide necessary resources,” he said. “Both Republican and Democratic election officials all across the country were saying, ‘We can’t get this done unless you provide us with adequate resources.’ ”
Becker’s nonprofit accepted more than $50 million from Zuckerberg and Chan, and then offered those funds to top elections officials in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Twenty-four applied, and Becker said there was enough money to provide every state that received a grant with all the funding it asked for.
“There are states that were heavy Trump states that we gave money to, and there are states that were heavy Biden states that we gave money to,” Becker said. “And both are successes, because they led to high turnout of voters who found a way to express their voice in the middle of a global pandemic.”
Arizona spent its nearly $4.8 million grant on a statewide voter outreach program with a little over a month to go before Election Day.
Will Gaona, legislative affairs director for Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, said voter education was vital in a year when voting options were altered to accommodate coronavirus safety measures.
“From our office’s perspective, a very important part of election integrity is making sure that people can actually participate, that they know how to participate and have a meaningful opportunity to do so,” Gaona said.
Nine Arizona counties also received Zuckerberg and Chan’s donations through a separate nonprofit: the Center for Tech and Civic Life. Counties spent grants training and paying poll workers, educating voters and renting venues large enough to allow safe distances between voters at in-person polls.
La Paz County, one of the smallest counties in Arizona, spent its $18,000 replacing camera equipment that broke days before the August primary election. Deputy Elections Director Kimmy Olsen said without that equipment, officials had to use a laptop camera to livestream election headquarters, so that people could observe the vote-counting process.
Now they’ve got a brand new camera for future elections.
“It was actually a godsend that it showed up on our doorstep the way that it did,” Olsen said. “Because like I said, us smaller counties, we do struggle to survive, to get the things that we need.”
Opponents of bills like HB 2569 say unless the effort to block private grants is paired with additional government funding for elections, voters will suffer.
“It’s pretty clear what the impact of this could be, that we’ll have less voter education outreach, we’ll have less opportunity to increase election staffing,” Gaona said. “Whether you want to call that voter suppression or not, I won’t say. But I do think the effect of it is pretty clear.”
Editor’s note: Facebook is among NPR’s financial supporters.