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Some Lawmakers Want Private Money Out Of Elections Administration

Elizabeth Baier

Election officials like Jason Dedmond faced great challenges in 2020.

"I can guarantee you that more was spent on the 2020 Election than probably any other election," Dedmond, the Onslow County elections director, said. "We also had the highest turnout ever, the largest amount of one-stop locations, the longest hours because the state had the idea to spread out the voting and try to get people in early and have the longer hours so there wasn't a large group of people at one time where they could get the coronavirus."

Even with federal COVID-19 relief through the CARES Act, Dedmond couldn't cover the added cost of processing the unusually large number of absentee ballots and of making polling places sanitary for in-person voters.

Onslow was one of 10 North Carolina counties to receive a grant from the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California, founded by the former Republican governor of California and movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Like Onslow, Greene County also received a Schwarzenegger Institute grant.

"[We had] one-stop early voting, we had a person that greeted every person at the door and offered a mask if they didn't have a mask and helped with the line and spacing to make sure we had social distance in our line," said Greene County Elections Director Trey Cash.

"And then we also had an additional worker that was cleaning behind every voter that voted in the polling station. So once they voted we wiped it down clean with Clorox wipes."

Cash added: "If we wouldn't have had the extra money we wouldn't have been able to hire so many people to help at one-stop early voting and on election day to ensure the safety of our voters."

Despite the considerable impact such private funding had on the ability of state and local officials to administer the 2020 elections, GOP lawmakers in state legislatures across the country have taken aim at private donations like these.

"Our job basically is to look for gaps or deficiencies in our state laws and to try to fix them," said state Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell), who co-chairs the Elections and Redistricting Committee and is one of the sponsors of a bill that would ban elections administrators from using contributions from private organizations.

Daniel continued: "This was something that was identified coming out of the 2020 Election where private funding had been inserted into the election apparatus, you know, the vote-counting process.

"We looked at the state statute and it was silent and so we just felt like it was something we needed to address and we just felt that when millions of dollars of private money are inserted into an elections administration process, it's not a recipe for instilling public confidence."

To be clear, there is no indication that such private contributions were used in what Senator Daniel called the "vote-counting process." It was used as the election officials claimed: to hold an election during a pandemic, in an attempt to keep people safe.

Daniel says that isn't the point: "I don't think that was our concern as much as just the principle that private special interest groups shouldn't be funding a government process of counting votes. And regardless of who it is, whether it's Mark Zuckerberg or the Koch brothers, you know, we think that it's just not appropriate for that to happen."

"There's absolutely no evidence that the money that has come in from these private sources was used for anything but sound election administration principles. [There's] no reason to believe there was any corruption," said Prof. Rick Hasen, an elections law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

"But it's a neat fat target," Hasen added, "especially when you have Mark Zuckerberg giving a lot of that money and Mark Zuckerberg being the head of Facebook, which has de-platformed Trump for at least two years because of his incendiary rhetoric surrounding the January 6 insurrection and the legitimacy of the 2020 election."

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, contributed tens of millions of dollars to help elections administrators across the country in 2020. Those funds were distributed by the Center for Election Innovation and Research, whose executive director and founder is David Becker.

"I got a call from [Zuckerberg and Chan's] representatives," Becker explained, "and they said 'We'd like to help.'"

"I knew from talking to state elections officials that they were having a really hard time keeping all of their voters informed about how they could successfully navigate the election process safely," said Becker. "They were going to have more voters than ever before, more new voters than ever before, polling places had been changed, poll workers needed to be recruited and so they needed to get the word out. They needed to do voter education, totally nonpartisan, of all voters."

Becker said the funds helped purchase personal protective gear, hand sanitizer, disposable pens, plexiglass shields and voter information mailers.

"This all cost a lot of money and the funds were simply not there, they were not being provided by government," he said.

The private funding of elections does raise some red flags in the long-term, according to Prof. Rachael Cobb, who chairs the political science and legal studies department at Suffolk University in Boston. She focuses on elections administration and political participation.

"It made sense in this emergency situation to do what needed to be done," Cobb said of the use of private contributions for the 2020 elections.

"But relying on private funds is not sustainable over time for a variety of reasons. I don't think elections essentially should be seen as public-private partnership and the funding of them should be something that states, the federal government, and locals come up with formulas that are sustainable and that work for the kinds of voting that we will do into the future," she said. "So this is a moment to think about what we have to do in order to fund our elections well. But having private funds can dry up or they can be seen as having undue influence. So there's the perception of them along with what they're actually doing."

As much as Cobb believes adequate government funding for elections is needed to preserve public confidence in the system, she expressed skepticism that local, state and federal officials will rise to the occasion.

"I am not fully confident," Cobb said, when asked if she thought government would provide adequate funds for elections administration.

"I want to raise the moment of 2002 when Congress, in a bi-partisan manner, passed the Help America Vote Act and did dedicate funds to it," she said. "There was widespread agreement that what had happened in Florida, in 2000, was problematic and that so many issues had been raised about hanging chads and machinery and lists and all of that and so a lot of effort and money was put into modernizing our election system."

"That spirit does not exist today," Cobb concluded.

In 2021, seven states, including Arizona, Texas, and Florida, have enacted laws that ban or restrict funding from private groups for elections administration. All of those states have a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature.

GOP-led legislatures in 17 states have had bills filed this year that would ban private funding for elections. Such bills still are pending in five of those states, including North Carolina.

The conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America lists banning private contributions to elections administration as one of its policy recommendations for state governments.

"We're not passing it as a base motivator," state Senator Daniel said. "In fact, I don't really think this is a bill that would probably even do that, because it's so technical. We picked targeted topics that we thought are some ways that Republicans and Democrats ought to agree that we should shore up our election system."

The North Carolina General Assembly is focused primarily on budget negotiations these days. State Board of Elections officials are watching that process closely, hoping budget writers will authorize the board's use of federal Help America Vote Act money already allocated to fund 30 positions in cyber-security.

Early versions of the budget raised alarms by denying the state elections board authorization to use those funds.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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