After the polls closed on November 3, 2020, chaos ensued thanks to questionable counting tactics, shady out-of-state funding for election jurisdictions, and inconsistent and illegal handling of absentee ballots.
It’s no secret that election processes and policies in many states are woefully out of date and in need of a refresh for the sake of election integrity. But voting during the pandemic made an already intricate process even more complicated. Election Day turned into “Election Week” and many Americans began to sense a general feeling of uneasiness for the future of secure elections and the democratic process itself.
If election processes aren’t secure and held to high standards, and if the integrity of the process isn’t maintained from state to state, where does this leave the republic? Not in a good, secure place. When election processes lack integrity, voters lack confidence and a desire to participate.
A big point of contention in the 2020 presidential election was the issue of third party, out-of-state funding for election jurisdictions.
A Quick Recap of Zuckerbucks
During the 2020 presidential election, more than 2,500 election offices across the country received grants of varying amounts from the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), funded in part by Google and Facebook. One of the largest donors was the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. They contributed at least $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.
But our research into the available data shows that less than one percent of funds were actually spent on PPE nationwide. In addition to boosting the salaries of election officials, many counties spent the money on get-out-the-vote efforts to boost voter turnout.
The punchline? The grant dollars followed Democrats. Democrat-held jurisdictions received significantly more in funding than their Republican neighbors.
The Burning Question
The big question hovering over any discussion of this issue is whether or not Zuckerbucks had an impact on election results.
Consider for a moment that in Pennsylvania, counties won by Biden in 2020 received nearly $5 in Zuckerbucks per registered voter, compared to just $1.13 per registered voter for counties won by Trump. Further, counties that received Zuckerbucks saw substantially higher voter turnout compared to 2016—specifically Democrat voter turnout. Counties that received Zuckerbucks saw Democrat turnout substantially higher than counties that did not receive grant money.
The full impact of Zuckerbucks on election results is still unknown, as some information on how the money was spent is still unavailable or unattainable.
But a closer look at available data shows that Zuckerbucks may indeed have influenced the election results in several key states.
Zuckerbucks significantly influenced Georgia’s leftward shift. While President Trump may have ultimately been able to overcome Zuckerbucks’ influence statewide in Florida, this was not the case in neighboring Georgia, which may serve as a warning sign for red states like Florida that are concerned about the influence of California billionaires in their elections. For example, according to NPR, Georgia received more than $31 million in Zuckerbucks for the November general election. The average Georgia county moved less than one percentage point to the left among the two-party vote share. But further examination shows that counties that did not receive Zuckerbucks barely budged at all while counties that received Zuckerbucks shifted 2.4 percentage points to the left, on average, indicating they essentially drove the state’s overall leftward shift, significantly higher than the statewide average. Overall, an astonishing 75 percent of counties that received Zuckerbucks saw Democrat turnout outweigh Republican turnout. In the instance of Georgia, the data is clear: Zuckerbucks influenced the election outcome.
Biden carried five of Arizona’s 15 counties in the 2020 election. In the four Biden-carried counties that took Zuckerbucks, the number of Democratic-presidential voters increased by 36 percent or more. By contrast, in Santa Cruz County without Zuckerbucks, Democratic presidential votes increased by only 12 percent. Although Santa Cruz County had the second-lowest increase in overall turnout from 2016, Trump was still able to improve his vote count in the heavily Democrat county by nearly 60 percent.
In Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, two of three counties that comprise the district, St. Louis County and St. Charles County, received Zuckerbucks. The Republican incumbent, Rep. Ann Wagner, earned fewer votes in both of these counties than she did in 2016. By contrast, Wagner’s opponent saw a 32 percent boost in support for the Democrat ticket. This combination of fewer votes for Wagner and the surge in opponent votes led to narrower victories in the two Zuckerbucks counties. In Jefferson County, which did not receive Zuckerbucks, the share of increased turnout voting in the 2nd Congressional District race was more evenly distributed among the two major-party candidates. Wagner increased her vote count in Jefferson County and, unlike the Zuckerbucks counties, had a margin of victory comparable to that of the 2016 election.
The available data is quite clear: Counties that received Zuckerbucks saw a dramatic uptick in Democrat voter turnout compared to counties that did not receive grants. Ultimately, the outcome of the election may not have been different, but the average American is well within reason to wonder what the final vote counts would have looked like had Zuckerbucks not been in the picture.
A question worth considering is whether you would confidently go to the polls knowing your vote mattered if big donors held the most sway in your local elections. Most likely, you’d stay home.
This is why it’s crucial for states to pass policies that protect the integrity of their elections processes: To prevent third party money from infiltrating and influencing elections.