Virginia bans private funds for election offices after grants from group allied with Zuckerberg

Virginia election offices will no longer be able to accept private grants under a new law passed in response to a $3.7 million injection local election administrators received in 2020 from a nonprofit funded in part by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Lifewho says he seeks to “harness the promise of technology to modernize the American voting experience,” were cited by lawmakers pushing to restrict the use of private money in government-run elections.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, CTCL announced it was making grants available to help local officials run elections safely under the extraordinary circumstances of 2020. Zuckerberg’s tie prompted a backlash from several states from conservatives, who used the term “Zuck Bucks” to denounce what they claimed was a shadowy effort by a billionaire to sway the election results. But the group insisted its efforts were nonpartisan, and documentation of some Virginia grants indicates that local officials often used the money for seemingly innocuous and nonpolitical functions, such as additional cleanup or additional resources. to manage an unforeseen increase in mail-in ballots.

R-Franklin County Sen. Bill Stanley, one of the bill’s main sponsors, said earlier this year that regardless of a group’s partisan intent or leanings, outside money should not be involved in the conduct of local elections which should be fully funded by the government.

“If we’re not able to give them the money they need to hold free and fair elections, then we’re not doing our job properly,” Stanley said in committee testimony.

The law banning the practice was passed by the Republican-led House of Delegates along party lines. But the Democratic-controlled Senate also unanimously approved it after additional guardrails were added to avoid inhibiting more routine election activities such as third-party voter registration drives or grants. from the federal government, which may involve private funding sources. The bill also includes a specific exemption allowing private buildings to be used as polling places without breaking the new law.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned on “election integrity” themes last year, signed the bill into law last month. The law comes into force on July 1.

“Virginia has joined more than a dozen states that have taken strong action to defend the integrity of state and local elections, and the Governor is proud to have signed this bill into law,” the spokesperson said. de Youngkin, Macaulay Porter, noting bipartisan support for the bill.

According to the CTCL website, the group has distributed a total of nearly $350 million in grants to nearly 2,500 election offices, including 38 in Virginia. The group did not respond to requests for comment, but defended the grant program in a press release issued last fall.

“There were no partisan issues in the grant applications,” the statement said, noting that the organization often works with small or rural election departments. “CTCL COVID-19 Response Grant funding decisions were not made on a partisan basis, and as demonstrated by jurisdictions across the political spectrum that received money, partisan considerations n ‘played no role in the availability or allocation of funds.’

As the 2020 election nears, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced contributions of $350 million to CTCL to be redistributed to local offices to help with the country’s electoral infrastructure and voting process.

Some Democrats pushed back against what they saw as a conspiratorial tone in some discussions of the bill.

At a House of Delegates committee meeting, Del. Otto Wachsmann, R-Sussex, suggested funding from private groups could influence election results if used to pay for things like extra ballot boxes.

“The concern is that they would influence where the vaults went,” Wachsmann said of the private funders. “And they can pick pitches that they know can swing one way for one candidate or against another candidate.”

In her testimony before the House Privileges and Elections Committee, Melody Clarke, a conservative activist with Heritage Action, suggested that CTCL money was “used in targeted areas to impact elections across the country”.

“Even on the purest of grounds, private election funding to government offices is inappropriate. It creates mistrust,” Clarke said.

Local election offices had to apply to receive a CTCL grant, and applications had to specify what need the money would go to.

In light of this, Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, told the hearing that critics of the grant program were wrongly accusing local election offices of being involved in something “nefarious”.

“It’s clear to me that Virginia had a safe and secure election, including safe-deposit boxes and early voting,” Mundon King said. “I just think it’s a response to looking for a problem.”

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At the same hearing, former Virginia Election Commissioner Chris Piper, who oversaw the 2020 election, held up a bottle of Anheuser-Busch brand hand sanitizer that the beer company made available to election officials at the start of the pandemic when hand sanitizer was hard to come by.

“We accepted them,” Piper said, noting that if the ban had been in place in 2020, the state could not have accepted the gifted hand sanitizer.

Piper said the state itself had not received grant funds from the CTLC, and he pointed out that the money was something local election offices needed to seek out to meet a clearly defined need.

“It was a grant fund,” Piper said. “So we had to apply. You had to explain exactly how you were going to use it.

In the Senate, Democrats also pushed back against the idea that the money was political in nature.

“Do we have evidence that it was spent to influence the outcome of the election?” asked Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who chairs the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

Stanley said he didn’t make that claim, but asked Deeds if voters could feel confident in the election if corporate funders could fund the running of the election, which he said might require disclaimers such as “Senate Election District 9 is sponsored by Dewalt Tools”.

“It should stay with government at the state and local level,” Stanley said.

Twenty-four of Virginia’s 38 cities and counties that won a CTLC grant in 2020 voted for former President Donald Trump, while 14 opted for President Joe Biden. Democratic-leaning counties got the biggest grants, but General Assembly Democrats said that likely reflected the fact that those electoral offices in places like Fairfax County and Prince William County had the most of voters to serve.

CTCL’s largest amount of funding in 2020 went to Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous county and a Democratic stronghold which used a total of $1.2 million from the organization. Fairfax County Registrar Eric Spicer says just under $1 million of the grant paid for overtime expenses and hundreds of seasonal hires to help deal with the massive increase in paperwork associated with the switch to postal voting. Other funds received from the grant, which was approved under a former registrar, went towards postage and the high-speed scanner for processing mail-in ballots. Documentation of grant funding provided by Spicer’s office verifies these expenditures in broad strokes, without going into granular detail.

The smallest CTLC grant in Virginia was $5,000 sent to heavily Republican Craig County in southwestern Virginia. Documentation provided by Craig County Registrar Joanna Ryan, who also noted the grant took place under a predecessor, says the county of just over 5,000 people used the money to clean up its offices. voting, “which put voters and workers at ease to increase turnout.”

“We are very grateful for your funding and will count on you as an important resource in the future!” wrote a member of the Craig County Board of Elections in a grant report returned to the CTLC.

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