By SARAH MONTALBANO | ALASKA POLICY FORUM
Election integrity is the cornerstone of nations, states, and communities that truly represent the will of their people. Alaskans must believe in the election process to trust that the outcomes are fair. Unfortunately, private actors took advantage of the chaos of the 2020 presidential election to transfer enormous quantities of money to election offices.
Some of that money made it to Alaska.
The Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) is a Democrat-led nonprofit with major donors including Google and Facebook. In 2020, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, donated $350 million to CTCL, which in turn distributed funds to more than 2,500 election offices nationwide.
Although the program has been suspended for future elections, a detailed look at how that money, coined “Zuckerbucks,” was spent in 2020 illustrates the danger.
Advertised under the guise of “COVID-19 response grants,” less than one percent of grant funding nationwide went toward “personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, poll workers, or voters.” Most alarming is the substantial funding going toward “vote-by-mail/absentee voting equipment or supplies” and “nonpartisan voter education.”
The media fawned over the Mark and Chan Zuckerberg initiative, crediting the millions dumped into U.S. election offices with saving the 2020 election. NPR proclaimed “How Private Money From Facebook’s CEO Saved the 2020 Election.” Imagine the uproar and hysteria if, for instance, Charles Koch had donated the $350 million instead of Mark Zuckerberg. The corresponding NPR report in this farcical reality would surely have been sprinkled with dire warnings about the future of our democracy and accusations of malicious conservative influence.
Such warnings are more appropriate than the fawning. The Wall Street Journal editorial board described one case that demonstrates the improbability of a private organization’s funding “nonpartisan voter education.” Green Bay, Wisconsin, received $1.2 million from CTCL, which made available to the city a consultation with the Brennan Center for “post-election audits” and “cybersecurity.” Noting the Brennan Center’s partisan disposition, the Journal asked, “What if conservatives underwrote ‘voter outreach’ by town clerks, while sending in experts from the Heritage Foundation?”
Using private funds and accepting partisan help, whether from Mark Zuckerberg or Charles Koch, is clearly inappropriate for election officials, even if well within the First Amendment rights of the donors.
The evidence suggests that Zuckerbuck grants unduly influenced Democrat jurisdictions. Several CTCL founders worked for the New Organizing Institute, a progressive 501(c)(4) organization that trains progressive organizers in digital strategy and data management. Aside from the employment history of its founders, however, grant dollars were disproportionately awarded in several states to Democrat jurisdictions.
According to the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), in Pennsylvania, counties won by Biden received nearly $5.00 per registered voter, while counties won by Trump received only $1.13. This funding appears to have substantially raised voter turnout among Democrats compared with both the 2016 elections and jurisdictions that did not receive any Zuckerbucks. A similar distribution ($7.13 for Biden counties versus $1.91 for Trump counties) in Georgia may actually have influenced the outcome: Counties that did not receive a grant didn’t show much leftward shift, but Zuckerbuck counties swung, on average, 2.3 percent toward Biden, which accounts for the state’s overall move toward the Democrat.
CTCL stood ready with suggested consultants and organizations, most left-leaning, some of whom offered to assist with tasks and asked for information properly reserved for official elections staff. Experts from groups such as Power the Polls, Mikva Challenge, the Brennan Center, the Center for Civic Design, the Elections Group, Digital Response, and the National Vote at Home Institute lent, or at least offered, their assistance to official election offices. The Wisconsin activist from the National Vote at Home Institute even had the gall to ask to see and record the Milwaukee Election Commission’s election management system, which includes the poll books.
In Alaska, the Denali and Haines Boroughs received $25,000 each from CTCL “to support the safe administration of public elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The grant application and final grant reports were collected through public records requests to each borough.
The Denali Borough reported spending almost $12,000, or 47% of the grant amount, on “vote-by-mail/absentee voting equipment or supplies,” while only $4,500, or 18%, went to PPE. A $25,000 grant may not seem like much when it comes to government, but in this case, it was two-thirds more than the borough’s $15,000 one-year election budget established for 2020.
The Haines Borough reported spending only $250 on PPE, or 1%, and $3,730, or 10%, on “vote-by-mail/absentee voting equipment or supplies.” The majority of the Haines Borough grant purchased new ballot boxes and handicap ballot booths. For perspective, the Haines Borough’s one-year budget for 2020 was originally $4,368.
If it is true that election offices have insufficient funds, having private actors underwrite official election business is not the solution. Even with squeaky-clean motives, private money sows distrust in the election process and damages the integrity of elections. When motives are less than honest, the cash weighs like a thumb on the scale and can tip outcomes in favor of the preferences of whatever organization is sponsoring your local elections.
In fact, recent polling shows that 85% of all Alaska voters “oppose allowing government offices that oversee elections to accept funding for their operations from private individuals and special interest groups. … No other [election integrity] issue polled had such profound and widespread agreement across all political parties. Keeping Alaska elections protected for Alaskans is clearly not a partisan issue.”
Ensuring election integrity and restoring the confidence of voters cannot be an afterthought. Alaska must take further steps to protect the state’s election integrity and restore voters’ confidence.