Questionable counting tactics, inconsistent and illegal handling of absentee ballots, and out-of-state funding left a bad taste in the mouths of many American voters when the dust settled after the 2020 election. The chaos that ensued once the polls closed on November 3 showed the nation that we have serious issues to contend with when it comes to securing elections, safeguarding ballots, and making sure each vote is counted—and each vote counts.
Trust in the democratic process is the key to getting voters to the polls. If voters don’t have confidence that their vote matters, they’ll simply stay home. Part of restoring voter confidence requires prohibiting the influence of outside, private money in government election processes.
During the 2020 presidential election, nearly 2,500 election offices across the country received grants of varying amounts from the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), a Democrat-led non-profit funded in part by Google and Facebook. One of the largest donors was the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. They contributed $350 million to the initiative so that CTCL could regrant the funds to local election jurisdictions.
CTCL’s election grants—or “Zuckerbucks”—were advertised as additional resources to help election jurisdictions “safely serve every voter” amid the COVID-19 public health emergency.
However, a deep dive into the available data shows that the funds were largely requested for get-out-the-vote efforts, influenced voter turnout in favor of Democrats, and may have impacted the results of the election in some states. According to currently available information, less than one percent of the funds were actually spent on PPE nationwide.
How the Funds Were Used
The CTCL has not yet disclosed full details about how much was distributed to each grantee during the 2020 election, so there are still quite a few unanswered questions and missing pieces of data when it comes to just how pervasive the influence of these grants was upon local elections.
Based on the available data, we do know that the funds were part of a “COVID-19 Response Grant” program with the purpose of helping election jurisdictions make pandemic-era voting safer.
The grants were touted as resources to keep voters safe at the polls with consideration for COVID-19. This money was advertised as a means for buying personal protective equipment (PPE) and for other COVID-mitigation measures.
Mark Zuckerberg, one of CTCL’s largest benefactors, defended the grants as a way to “help people vote safely.” In an October Facebook post, Zuckerberg said the funding was “to support election officials” and address “unprecedented challenges.” The truth is, only a small fraction of the funds were spent on PPE—or anything even remotely related to the pandemic.
So, where did the money go?
In Missouri, Boone County spent more than $14,000 of its $604,780 grant on “non-partisan voter education.” According to the Boone County Clerk’s Office, they used the funds to produce a music video and radio spot with local rap artists. Similarly, Jackson County proposed a nearly $1.5 million outreach and education campaign in its grant application. According to the grant report submitted to CTCL, it spent $476,446.39 on “non-partisan voter education” and has nearly $1 million unspent from the grant.
Chester County in Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, submitted a grant request that included more than $1 million for ballot drop boxes, nearly half a million dollars for “absentee ballot assembly and processing equipment,” and more than $200,000 for an “oversized postcard” to all registered voters, as well as a promotional video in Spanish and English, amongst other outreach expenses, including $5,000 for an online voter registration drive. They stated their intent to spend $150,000 on PPE, sanitizer, and other COVID-related hygiene products—less than six percent of their total grant request amount.
In Wisconsin—a pivotal 2020 battleground state that ultimately flipped from Donald Trump to Joe Biden—the five largest cities requested and obtained a grant from CTCL. The five mayors of these cities requested more than $6 million, claiming the state elections in April consumed most of their operating budget set aside for elections. Without the Zuckerbucks, the mayors argued, they would have been forced to choose between safety and the right to vote. However, despite these claims, less than 14 percent of the proposed funds were projected to go towards safety measures. Indeed, significantly more money was requested for get out the vote efforts than for safety equipment. In Milwaukee, who received multiple million dollar Zuckerbucks grants, only 3.3 percent of funds were requested for PPE. In Racine, only 2.1 percent of grant funds were expected to be funneled into PPE, while more than quadruple the funds were spent on early voting efforts.
CTCL press releases also indicate that personnel expenses were one of the top expenses for grant money, completely unrelated to COVID-19 health considerations. In an absurd conflict of interest, the grant money was used for overtime and backpay for election workers.
What This Means for Election Integrity
Private, outside money impacting election outcomes presents a serious threat to the democratic process itself. After Election Day turned into “Election Week,” states are taking action with commonsense election reforms. With these reforms, states such as Iowa, Georgia, Arkansas, and Arizona are working hard to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.
While many in the media and the corporate world reacted with outrage, their outrage is not backed by the general public. Americans support election integrity, and states’ efforts to secure elections will protect voters and ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. These protections are restoring public trust in elections—and voters will feel confident going to the polls to participate in the democratic process knowing their vote counts.