The 2020 presidential election left many voting Americans with questions and concerns about the security and transparency of the election process, and rightfully so.
Voting in the midst of a pandemic was sure to be complicated, but it is becoming more and more evident that bad actors took advantage of these “unprecedented times” by giving and receiving grant money intended for COVID-19 mitigation to instead influence voter turnout, potentially impacting election results.
Zuckerbucks, As Advertised
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), Democratic-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.
Where the Money Really Went
According to currently available information, less than one percent of the funds was actually spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) nationwide. States like Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin spent a small fraction of their combined $43+ million in Zuckerbucks on PPE, with substantial funds going to non-partisan voter education. Boone County, Missouri paid to produce a music video and radio spot to encourage voter turnout. Chester County, Pennsylvania spent six figures to send a postcard to all registered voters and produce a promotional video in English and Spanish.
These are just a few notable examples: In many cases, jurisdictions used grant money intended for COVID-19 purposes on targeted efforts to increase voter turnout.
The fact that local jurisdictions used funds advertised as a “COVID-19 Response Grant” program for their own get-out-the-vote initiatives displays a dramatic lack of transparency. Further, election officials gave themselves generous pay raises and bought cars with this grant money when they should have, in theory, been spending the grant money on PPE and other related COVID-19 expenses.
What’s worse, the grants were not distributed even-keel between election jurisdictions. Grant dollars followed Democrats, with blue jurisdictions receiving significantly more funding than their red counterparts.
It appears these grants were much less about protecting voters from COVID-19 and much more about registering and getting Democrat voters into the polls.
Counties that Biden won received higher grant amounts than counties won by Trump in the 2020 general election. According to CTCL, “grant amounts scaled with jurisdiction size.” However, the distribution of Zuckerbucks across Pennsylvania does not correspond with a population-based approach. Grant amounts varied widely, with counties receiving between slightly more than half a dollar to more than $9 per registered voter.
Even more troubling, a higher number of dollars appear to have flowed to counties that ultimately voted for Joe Biden. Pennsylvania counties won by Biden in 2020 received nearly $5 in Zuckerbucks per registered voter, compared to just $1.12 for counties won by Trump. By contrast, almost all (77 percent) of Trump counties that received Zuckerbucks did so at a rate of less than $1.00 per registered voter. While CTCL may have considered population numbers when calculating grant awards, it clearly could not have been the only factor used to determine award amounts.
It is unsurprising that Arizona and Florida were recipients of substantial grants because of their electoral significance. In Florida, the allocation of Zuckerbucks—according to NPR reports—closely mirrors Florida’s top population zones, as well as its traditionally “swing” areas—including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Kissimmee, Tampa, and more. Zuckerbucks were also given to high-Democrat areas—in fact, 78 percent of counties that voted for Clinton in 2016 received Zuckerbucks, while just seven percent of the counties Trump carried in 2016 received Zuckerbucks.
Further, counties that received Zuckerbucks had substantially higher voter turnout in Democrat-held areas compared to 2016.
The available data points to the trend of greater Democrat performance compared to 2016 in counties that received Zuckerbucks relative to their neighboring counties.
Of the six Iowa counties that have disclosed Zuckerbucks grant amounts, all of them saw increased voter turnout from the 2016 presidential election to the 2020 election. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all but one of these counties saw turnout increases that favored Democrats. The remaining county saw a modest turnout increase that was more favorable to Republicans—but its grant was only $6,000, compared to the tens and hundreds of thousands granted to the other five counties. In contrast, of the counties that didn’t receive any Zuckerbucks, 69 percent saw turnout for the Republican presidential candidate exceed any increase in turnout for the Democrat presidential candidate. For example, the neighboring counties of Scott and Muscatine saw almost identical increases in overall turnout, of about 13 percent. Scott County—which, according to NPR, received $286,870 in Zuckerbucks, the highest known amount in the state—saw a significant uptick in Democrat turnout that outweighed Republican turnout. By contrast, Muscatine County did not receive any Zuckerbucks and saw an increase in Republican turnout that outweighed Democrat turnout.
Arizona’s Maricopa County is home to more than 60 percent of Arizona’s voters and received roughly half of all Zuckerbucks distributed in the state. It was 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. While Democratic voter registration in Maricopa County has grown more than Republican registration since the 2016 election, the net increase was fewer than 50,000 votes and registered Republicans still outnumber registered Democrats by more than 100,000 voters. In counties that went for Biden in 2020, Zuckerbucks seem to have helped boost Democratic turnout.
There is some evidence that Zuckerbucks had an impact on the Pennsylvania election results by mobilizing Democrat voters. More than 90 percent of counties that receive Zuckerbucks saw an increase in Democrat votes that offset changes in Republican votes.
What This Means for Election Integrity
Zuckerbucks dealt election transparency and integrity a serious blow. States need to act quickly and intentionally to preserve this essential facet of the democratic process.
Conflicts of interest abounded where election jurisdictions were essentially given blank checks in the name of COVID-19 safety precautions. More importantly, grant money seemed to favor Democrat-held counties and had the effect of bringing more Democrat voters to the polls, potentially impacting election results.
Election integrity is not a partisan issue. Though the voices of the media and corporate America are loud, most Americans support securing the election process.
Arizona is leading the way with legislation recently signed into law that prohibits state and local election officials from accepting private, third-party funding in future elections and aims to restore Arizonans’ trust in the election process.
Policymakers can and should restore trust and protect their election processes by preventing local election jurisdictions from receiving funds from private parties. Democracy depends on it.