Zuckerberg’s cash fuels GOP suspicion and new election rules

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Facebook and Twitter’s actions around the closely contested election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, in Washington. (Hannah McKay/Pool via AP)

DENVER — When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $400 million to help fund election officials during the coronavirus pandemic late last summer, he said he hoped he would never have to do it again.

Republican legislatures are granting him that wish.

At least eight GOP-controlled states have passed bans on donations to election offices this year as Republicans try to block outside funding of voting operations.

The response is spurred by anger and suspicion on the right that Zuckerberg’s money benefited Democrats in 2020. Conservatives have long accused the tech mogul’s social media platform of censoring right-wing voices as part of its campaign against misinformation.

Zuckerberg’s money was largely distributed through a nonpartisan foundation that had liberal roots. Conservative groups cite analyses that the money went disproportionately to Democratic-leaning counties in key states such as Florida and Pennsylvania.

“People saw that, and looked around, and they were increasingly concerned about why would you have a billionaire funding our elections through the backdoor,” said Jessica Anderson, executive director of the conservative group Heritage Action, which has pushed the bans in several states.

A spokesman for Zuckerberg declined to address the wave of new legislation.

“When our nation’s election infrastructure faced unprecedented challenges last year due to the pandemic, Mark and Priscilla stepped up to close a funding gap and granted $350 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonpartisan, 501 (c)(3) organization,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama administration spokesman. “Mark made clear this was a unique effort to address the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic and his preference for elections to be publicly funded.”

The center distributed grants to 2,500 election offices nationwide, from Alaska to Florida. The money was spent in a wide variety of ways — protective gear for poll workers, public education campaigns promoting new methods to vote during the pandemic, and new trucks to haul voting equipment.

In northern Arizona, sprawling Coconino County used its $614,000 grant to hire more election workers, particularly Navajo speakers who could do outreach on a reservation, and set up drive-up sites for voters to drop off ballots, said county recorder Patty Hansen.

She said it was the first time she had enough money to expand outreach to the entire county, which is among the biggest in land size in the country at 18,600 square miles but is sparsely populated.

“Because of the legislation passed and signed by the governor, we will never be able to get a grant like that ever again,” she said. “They’re cutting off a funding source to be able to provide these additional requirements they’re putting on us.”

Election officials have long complained they were underfunded, but never more so than last year when they had to instantly revamp their entire operations at the peak of the pandemic. There was a huge shift to mail voting, while even in-person voting required new protective measures, and hazard pay for poll workers.

Democrats pushed for an extra $2 billion for election offices in the initial coronavirus aid bill in April but only got $400 million. After a spring and summer of troubled primaries and partisan deadlock over more funding, Zuckerberg stepped in. He and Chan donated a total of $400 million to election offices — $350 million in the form of grants to local offices that were distributed through CTCL.

The selection of CTCL raised eyebrows among some conservatives because of the group’s roots. Some of its founders, including Epps-Johnson, once were at the New Organizing Institute, which provided data and training to liberal activists. Still, CTCL has become respected among election officials and includes a Republican, Pam Anderson, former elected clerk of a suburban Denver-area county, on its board. In an interview, she said the group was “100% nonpartisan.”

The initial grants, though, went to major Democratic-voting cities. In Pennsylvania, one of the central battlegrounds of the presidential election, Philadelphia, with an annual election budget of $12.3 million, received $10 million from CTCL. The conservative Foundation for Government Accountability found that in Pennsylvania, Democratic-voting counties received an average of $4.99 per voter, while Republican-voting ones got $1.12 per voter.

In Florida, the differential was also dramatic, with one-third of the $18 million in total money going to Democratic-leaning Palm Beach County, and an additional $2.4 million for Miami-Dade County, which backed Democrat Joe Biden, albeit more narrowly than expected. Republican Donald Trump won the state.

“If Charles Koch was doing this, well, for many of these people the shoe would be on the other foot,” said Hayden Dublois, a researcher at the Foundation for Government Accountability, referring to the conservative billionaire.

In some states, including Georgia and Texas, the new laws require all donations to local election offices to be distributed by the secretary of state. In states such as Arizona, Kansas and Iowa, they are banned altogether.