The Office of the Secretary of State of Georgia Brad Raffensperger received almost $5.6 million dollars last year from an entity with ties to Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg. The organization, Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR) based in Washington D.C, granted the money in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election.
“Georgia used CEIR grant funds in both the November general election and January runoff election to encourage voters to apply for a ballot online… This approach sped up the process for both voters and election officials while also making it easier to track application status. Georgia also used the funds to counteract disinformation, issuing public service announcements warning voters of disinformation and encouraging them to report fraud to the Secretary of State hotline,” states the CEIR website.
When ‘Georgia Star News’ contacted Raffensperger’s office for clarification on the issue, spokesman Walter Jones took a dig at the outlet. He stated that the funds received by the office enabled them to combat disinformation promoted by media entities like the outlet that undermined the confidence of Georgia’s voters. Interestingly, ‘Georgia Star News’ only began publishing after the 2020 Election Day.
Jones also pointed out that having the office accept the funds and distribute it fairly around the state was something endorsed by the Republican legislature. Without the Secretary of State’s office, the funds would have gone to the donor’s preferred county election boards. In an undated press release, Raffensperger praised the staff at CEIR as the “greatest minds that the country has to offer” due to which his state was able to have a safe and reliable paper-ballot system.
On its website, CEIR showers praises on Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan for their generous support, and claims that they gave every state the requested amount. The final distributed amount totaled $65 million which CEIR says was used to bolster voter education efforts in “a variety of ways.” The group apparently received $69 million from Zuckerberg. It is unknown how the remaining $4 million was spent.
In December, it was reported that the Board of Commissioners at Fulton County, Georgia had accepted a $6.3 million grant in September without asking questions about where the funds were coming from or what the money would be used for. The funds were granted by Zuckerberg-backed Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL). The decision to accept the funds was on Sept. 2, 2020, just a day after CTCL had received a $250 million donation from Zuckerberg.
Flipping Maricopa County
A report released by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) showed that several counties in the state of Arizona received more than $5 million from the Facebook founder via entities like the CTCL, which they term as ‘Zuckerbucks’. Though the grants were provided under the pretext of COVID-19 response, the report states that much of the funds were utilized for “Get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts and possibly ended up boosting voter turnout in favor of Democrats. On average, counties that received Zuckerberg funding saw the vote share of Democratic presidential candidates rise when compared to the 2016 election.
“In Maricopa County, the only county in the state to flip in the 2020 election, President Trump increased his vote total by more than 248,000 votes yet lost the county to Biden. In 2020, Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote total in the county by more than 337,000 votes. This nearly 90,000-vote difference cannot be explained by registration increases… In counties that went for Biden in 2020, Zuckerbucks seem to have helped boost Democratic turnout,” states the report.
It recommended that Arizona elections be protected from outside influence, specifically private funding groups, so as to avoid undermining the integrity of the election process. The report asks legislators to prohibit outside actors from funding the elections.
Banning private funds
In view of private funds pouring into the 2020 elections, various states are creating laws to counter similar activities in future. In Florida, an election bill, HB 7041, was recently passed by the House Appropriations Committee in a 17-8 vote. It contains a specific prohibition on private funding of elections, with Section 97.106 explicitly banning such activities.
“No agency or state or local official responsible for conducting elections, including, but not limited to, a supervisor of elections, may solicit, accept, use, or dispose of any donation in the form of money, grants, property, or personal services from an individual or a nongovernmental entity for the purpose of funding election-related expenses or voter education or registration programs,” from the section.
The bill is expected to pass through both houses of the legislature prior to April 30 prior to the current sessions close. The governor of Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis, has expressed full support for the bill. Once approved by the two houses, the bill will be sent to DeSantis who is expected to sign it into law. During the 2020 presidential election, CTCL had provided funds to 12 counties in the state. The amount received by the counties is unknown.
In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey recently signed legislation banning the use of private funds in elections. Democrats criticized the lack of funds from the Legislature as a reason for election officials turning to private funds. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who received $4.8 million from CEIR, argued that the money was critical in educating people on how to vote.
However, Republican Senator JD Mesnard warned that if private funding is allowed, it will become the newest way for rich individuals and corporations to influence elections. Governor Ducey pledged to provide adequate resources to election officials by partnering with the Legislature.
The Wisconsin Senate also passed a bill last week prohibiting municipalities and counties from securing funds for administering elections. However, it allows the Wisconsin Election Commission to accept private funds and then distribute the money equally. The bill was passed with a 25-0 vote. It will now go to the State Assembly and finally Governor Evers before getting signed into law.