They also know a lot about fundraising, and how much it costs to run an effective get-out-the-vote effort. They know about campaign finance laws, and contribution limits, and how hard it is to raise money. They know where their voters live, and where the other team’s voters live. State elected officials know a lot about state elections.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2569 on April 9. The law bans any election official from taking private money for election administration. Georgia included a similar provision in its wider election reform law, Senate Bill 202, signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 25.
So it’s interesting that a number of state legislatures are considering, or have already enacted, new laws to prevent local election officials from accepting private money to run elections.
In North Carolina, state lawmakers introduced House Bill 766 on May 3 and titled it, “An Act to Prohibit the Private Funding of Elections.”
Have you heard about this? While other election law changes have prompted thunderous press releases and high-profile corporate hand-wringing, these laws have received much less attention.
In 2020, a tax-exempt charitable foundation operated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan provided hundreds of millions of dollars for local election administration. As a nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) under the IRS code, the foundation cannot spend money on partisan political activities.
But in 2017, Chan and Zuckerberg hired David Plouffe, who was Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008, to lead what Zuckerberg described in a news release as the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative’s “policy and advocacy effort.” In October 2019, as the presidential campaigns were heating up, Plouffe scaled back to a part-time role to make more time for other endeavors, including a book he was writing, later published in March 2020. The title of the book? “A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump.”
While it’s completely legal for foundation money to be spent on non-partisan voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts, in this case, the foundation’s money appears to have been targeted to turn out one team’s voters.
Campaign spending in federal elections is limited by federal law and regulated by the Federal Election Commission. States have similar laws that limit and regulate campaign spending. This includes the money that campaigns spend on costly get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at turning out the voters who are likely to be on the campaign’s team, and not on the other campaign’s team.
In 2020, the Chan-Zuckerberg foundation gave $350 million to a nonprofit organization called the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which distributed it to about 2,500 jurisdictions in nearly every state.
The money paid for more polling places, more ballot-drop boxes, and more voter education. There were tight conditions on the use of the cash. For example, in Arizona’s Coconino County, the Board of Supervisors was told in a memo that the grant from CTCL would provide “additional capacity to increase voter education efforts.”
But not everywhere.
The Associated Press reported that nine of Arizona’s fifteen counties – Apache, Coconino, Graham, La Paz, Maricopa, Navajo, Pima, Pinal and Yuma – received grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. Of the six counties that received no foundation money – Cochise, Gila, Greenlee, Mohave, Santa Cruz and Yavapai – only one, lightly populated Santa Cruz, was carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The others went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. He carried Mohave (the state’s 6th largest county) by a margin of 73.7% to 22.2% and Yavapai (4th largest) 63.4% to 32%. No Chan-Zuckerberg money was spent by CTCL to get-out-the-vote in those jurisdictions.
A study by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based public policy think tank founded in 2011, reported that in Pennsylvania, CTCL distributed $22 million of private money for the 2020 election, and “counties won by Biden in 2020 received an average of $4.99 Zuckerbucks per registered voter, compared to just $1.12 for counties won by Trump.”
Pennsylvania is one of the states now considering a law to block the use of private money in election administration.
Ballotpedia, an online election information compendium, is tracking state legislation that would prohibit or regulate the use of private funding in election management. In addition to Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, the list includes Wisconsin, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, Arizona, Wyoming, West Virginia, South Carolina and Washington.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already signed House Bill 2283, which prohibits county officials from accepting a donation over $1,000 or using donated funds to administer elections.
The use of foundation money to administer elections and “educate” voters was a clever workaround that evaded campaign finance laws. Lawmakers in some states are quietly closing the loophole.
State lawmakers know the law: Independent committees can raise money to spend on behalf of a candidate, but it’s illegal for those committees to coordinate with the candidate or the candidate’s campaign. Yet in the 2020 election, $350 million from a foundation advised by David Plouffe went to the CTCL, a group founded by three political operatives whose ties to the Democratic party were so well known in 2014 that the Washington Post described an organization where they were co-workers as “the Democratic Party’s Hogwarts for digital wizardry.”
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