As the global pandemic required election officials to drastically rethink how voting would work in 2020, philanthropic groups stepped up and contributed millions of dollars that paid for much of the changes needed to election infrastructure. Officials have since said that that money — particularly in light of how Congress struggled to provide enough federal election funding — helped them thwart a pandemic voting fiasco. The charity grants covered everything from election equipment to temp workers to personal protective gear, and some local election offices saw their 2020 budgets doubled by the private funding they received.
But going forward, that kind of private bailout for U.S. elections may not be an option for many places across the country, as several Republican-controlled states consider new restrictions on whether election officials can accept charity money in the future.
Already this year, Georgia and Arizona have made proposed limits on private election funding law, and lawmakers have put forward similar measures in at least 11 other states (though some of those bills have stalled out or face vetoes from Democratic governors). The backlash to the charity election grants are part of a wave of legislation propelled by President Trump’s lies about his 2020 defeat.
“I have no doubt that the concern stems from what happened in the 2020 election,” said Rick Hasen, a UC-Irvine law professor who runs the election law blog and has written several books about election administration. “Anything that helped that election run smoothly and effectively and cleanly is now the target for attack.”
It’s unclear what effect such bans will have on election administration going forward. The pandemic was a once-in-a-generation emergency that prompted dramatic changes in how Americans vote — stretching the already tight budgets of election offices across the country. All told, election administrators across the country accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding, in what was reported to have been a mad dash to fill their budget holes last fall.
The grant programs allowed many election administrators put on what one expert at NYU’s Brennan Center described as their “dream” elections. About one in every five local offices accepted the philanthropic funding.
The Republican push to prohibit private election election comes after the charity grants occupied a piece of conspiracy theories floating around the 2020 election — fueled by President Trump and his allies’ ongoing beef with Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder whose charity put up more than $400 million in grants for election administration last year.
Critics of the bills see not just a knee jerk reaction to the 2020 results, but a groundwork being laid to starve election administration coffers, which will in turn reduce voting opportunities — particularly for low-income and minority voters.