After Congress failed to aid local election offices, a nonprofit provided critical funds — including $350 million from Mark Zuckerberg — that paid for staff, ballot-scanning machines, protective gear, and rental space that helped the presidential election run surprisingly smoothly.
Bill Turner knew he had a tough job. He took over as acting director of Voter Services in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in September, just two months before a divisive presidential election amid a global pandemic. A huge voter turnout was expected, and Covid-19 required election managers like Turner to handle mail-in ballots on a scale they’d never seen and confront the threat of their staffers becoming sick. These challenges had forced many election offices to burn through their budgets months earlier. Turner had previously served as the county’s emergency manager, experience that seemed apt for overseeing an election that many observers feared would become a catastrophe.
With a tight budget and little help from the federal government, Chester County applied for an election grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a previously small Chicago-based nonprofit that quickly amassed hundreds of millions in donations to help local elections offices — most notably, $350 million from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
“Honestly, I don’t know what we would have done without it,” Turner said.
The pandemic — and Congress’ neglect — necessitated an unprecedented bailout of election offices with private money funneled through a little-known nonprofit. And the money proved indispensable.
Turner is one of 25 election directors from swing states interviewed by APM Reports who said the grant money was essential to preventing an election meltdown amid worries over a pandemic and a president who continues to openly question — without evidence — the legitimacy of the process.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life gave grants to more than 2,500 jurisdictions this year to help departments pay for election administration. The money arrived as historically underfunded election department budgets were sapped from unforeseen purchases during the primaries and were forced to spend money on election workers, postage and printing for the increasing number of voters who wanted to vote by mail.
The nonprofit gave Chester County $2.5 million for the election, which is more than the county’s 2020 budget for voting services.
Chester is one of several large suburban counties that ring Philadelphia — once-Republican strongholds that have shifted in Democrats’ favor in recent years. Pennsylvania was pivotal to Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, and his win in the state was fueled in part by his success in Chester County. He won it by 17 percentage points — nearly double Hillary Clinton’s margin four years earlier.
Turner used the grant to buy 14 drop boxes for ballots, pay staff to watch those sites and purchase body cameras that recorded employees collecting ballots from the drop boxes. He also spent a large portion of his grant funding on additional equipment and people to ensure ballots were mailed and counted quickly. The county processed 150,000 mail ballots for the November election in 36 hours. Without the new equipment and personnel, he said, it would have taken a week or longer.
“This grant really was a lifesaver in allowing us to do more, efficiently and expeditiously,” he said. “It probably would have taken a very long time if we didn’t have the resources to do this.”
The private money was needed in part because the federal government hadn’t provided enough funding. Congress allocated $400 million in March for election services, but that was just a tenth of what some officials said was needed.
With little action from Congress, the private sector, led by Zuckerberg and Chan, stepped up. The couple awarded $400 million to nonprofits for election assistance — most of it going to the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
The full extent of the grants isn’t known. The Center for Tech and Civic Life declined repeated interview requests from APM Reports to discuss the funding and how it was used. In late October, the group listed the jurisdictions that received funding on its website but didn’t disclose dollar amounts or funding priorities for each jurisdiction.
But through a series of interviews, public records requests and a review of public meetings, APM Reports pieced together the details of grant awards in the five swing states that decided the election. APM Reports obtained more than 30 grant agreements and applications between local election offices and the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The documents show requests mainly focused on the logistics of the election: increased pay for poll workers, expanded early voting sites and extra equipment to more quickly process millions of mailed ballots.
Some jurisdictions received grants that were small fractions of their election budgets, while others saw theirs increase several times over. Suddenly, election administrators who had had to scrounge for resources could “fund their dream election,” said Liz Howard with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In the weeks since the election, allies of President Trump have included the Center for Tech and Civic Life grants in their voter fraud conspiracy theories. They have challenged the legality and neutrality of the grants, claiming that the funding was aimed at boosting Democratic turnout. But an APM Reports analysis of voter registration and voter turnout in three of the five key swing states shows the grant funding had no clear impact on who turned out to vote. Turnout increased across the country from 2016. The APM Reports analysis found that counties in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona that received grants didn’t have consistently higher turnout rates than those that didn’t receive money.
Officials with the Center for Tech and Civic Life and government officials have defended themselves in court and in written statements by saying the goal was to ensure safe voting options during the pandemic.
“In this moment of need, we feel so fortunate to be administering an open-call grant program available to every local election department in every state in the union to ensure that they have the staffing, training, and equipment necessary so that this November every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and have their vote counted,” the Center for Tech and Civic Life said in a statement on Sept. 24.
The nonprofit is also continuing to offer grants to communities that are holding runoff elections in Georgia in January.
While some election officials see little difference between private and government funding for elections, other officials are deeply worried about the precedent the private grants may set. They say private donors could have a personal agenda. For example, Zuckerberg may have wanted to improve his public image after years of criticism that the misinformation and divisive rhetoric on Facebook has damaged democracies around the world.
“It’s really important that it’s a one-time thing,” said Rachael Cobb, associate professor of political science and legal studies at Suffolk University in Boston. Cobb said the private money was critical for election administration this year, “but over time, it in and of itself is corrosive.” She said continuing to use private money for such purposes “sullies [the election] in a way that we don’t need it to be sullied at all.”
But other election analysts say private funding is the best option if the federal government isn’t going to commit to sustainable long-term funding for election offices.
They also say the grants helped avert a potential disaster where long lines, missing mail and slow counting could have led President Trump to further question the integrity of results in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona.
David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that without the grants “it certainly would have taken them a lot longer to process and count those absentee ballots, which would have only made this post-election period more unbearable.”
A small nonprofit, a big election role
The Center for Tech and Civic Life was founded in 2012 to help local election officials better use technology. The center, which had annual revenues of just $1.4 million in 2019, saw its budget and its role increase significantly in 2020.
After disastrous primaries in states like Wisconsin — where voters waited in long lines, mail-in ballots went missing and poll workers opted not to show up — election observers expressed deep worry that the nation was ill-equipped to manage a highly contentious general election during a pandemic.
That concern only grew after Congress didn’t pass a second stimulus bill over the summer, failing to deliver a second round of much-needed funding for election administration.
“Despite election officials basically begging our federal government for assistance, that money never came through,” said Howard, with the Brennan Center for Justice. “Congress really failed our election officials.”
In lieu of federal funding, the Center for Tech and Civic Life became a conduit for tech companies to help. The center lists Google and Facebook as key funders and partners. Zuckerberg and Chan announced a $250 million donation to the center in September and another $100 million gift in October.
“I agree with those who say that government should have provided these funds, not private citizens,” Zuckerberg wrote in an October Facebook post. “I hope that for future elections, the government provides adequate funding. But absent that funding, I think it’s critical that this urgent need is met.”
The nonprofit has done few interviews about the funding decisions, but the CEO, Tiana Epps Johnson, told an election partner last month that it was important for the money to be delivered quickly and meet the scale of what the federal government had already given.
“So all told in about eight weeks, we granted funds to over 2,500 election departments across the country in 49 states,” she said. “I am just so thrilled with my team that we were able to support election officials in this moment, but I also am really bummed that it was required.”
The center said that any county or municipality that sought a grant got one. The grant applications reviewed by APM Reports reveal how desperate many election departments were for funding. Wisconsin’s safe voting plan submitted to the nonprofit describes how the state’s largest cities “spent all or most of the budgeted resources for all of 2020 on the extraordinary circumstances” during the primary, and that without more money, cities in the state would have “no choice but to make tough decisions between health and the right to vote; between budget constraints and access to fundamental rights.” Officials in Ann Arbor, Michigan, emphasized that the “federal CARES ACT funding does not begin to meet the need of cash-strapped municipal election budgets.”
Grants went to communities in every state except Louisiana, where the Republican attorney general asserted that using private grant funding on elections violated state law.
Matthew Weil, director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank that studies elections, notes that underfunding of elections isn’t new. Many elections departments across the country had their budgets slashed following the 2008 recession and their funding never fully recovered.
“It does seem ridiculous to me that governments really have taken a back seat,” Weil said. “Working more with less eventually doesn’t work at some point. And there’s things that we have to buy to provide the election process that Americans expect.”
Funding for elections has decreased not just on the federal level but on the local one as well, Weil says. Though states handle key parts of the election process like voter registration and election security, local departments often are tasked with funding voting equipment and infrastructure, parts of the system that voters interact with most frequently.
“You’re competing with fire departments, EMS, potholes. I mean, elections happen frequently enough. But no one’s life depends on them, in the most immediate sense. And so it’s really difficult for them to get the kind of funding that they need.”
In some instances, money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life went beyond the annual budgets of election departments. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, the grant money was more than four times the city’s 2020 election budget. Grants for Milwaukee and Philadelphia accounted for more than half of those cities’ respective election budgets, according to an analysis of grant documents.
Peyton Fuller, senior accountant with the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners in Georgia, said his department applied thinking it would receive a small grant. But the nonprofit provided far more.
“We were thinking we were going to get like $5,000 or $6,000,” he said. “And then they came through with $60,000? I was like, ‘This is amazing.’”
A vote for creativity
Minneapolis Elections Director Grace Wachlarowicz had a problem on her hands in August. She had just wrapped up the August primary and realized she needed more workers to process the huge number of ballots sure to arrive in the November election. But to do that, the department needed more space.
“My facility could not handle the number of staff that I needed in order to process these absentee ballots,” she said. “We worked day and night because I couldn’t hire more people, because I didn’t have any space to safely have them work on it.”
The city spent $300,000 of its $2.3 million grant from the center to rent 70,000 square feet in the Minneapolis Convention Center. Without the funding, the city would have been forced to process and count the ballots in multiple locations, which could have caused chain-of-custody issues along with slowing down the counting of ballots.
Wachlarowicz was just one of many election directors who got creative with their funds.
Coconino County, Arizona, established drive-by voting and early voting sites on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Dallas County, Texas, budgeted $250,000 for food for onsite election workers, according to city records. It also requested $10 million to purchase a building for ballot processing and equipment storage.
In Racine, Wisconsin, officials used the money on a video campaign to encourage voters with criminal records to determine whether they were eligible to vote.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, spent money for sheriff’s deputies to monitor the county’s drop boxes.
Lansing, Michigan, spent $3,000 to send text messages and robocalls to inform citizens of vote-by-mail options.
The private grants have become a target of President Trump and his allies. They continue to claim — with no evidence — that voter fraud is the reason Biden won the presidency. In many instances, the Center for Tech and Civic Life funding is a central part of their legal claims. In Wisconsin, grants went to 221 townships, villages, cities and counties across the state. But the conservative Wisconsin Voters Alliance, which is pushing Trump’s unsubstantiated fraud allegations, argued in a recent court filing that the grant funding was intended to boost Democratic turnout in Wisconsin’s largest cities.
“The cities and CTCL knew in 2020 that Biden’s voters would be voting primarily by absentee vote which is why the Cities and CTCL aggressively ‘promoted,’ ‘encouraged’ and overzealously solicited voters to vote absentee,” the legal filing said.
Trump allies filed similar litigation in at least nine states to stop the grant funding. And in every instance, the judges rejected the claims.
The arguments that the grants served as a difference-maker for Biden have little merit.
APM Reports analyzed voting data for the 2016 and 2020 general elections in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, all of which shifted support from Trump in 2016 to Biden this year.
In all three states, the number of voters for the Democratic candidate increased at a greater rate than the rate for Republican voters, regardless of whether a county received a grant. Voter registration also increased at similar rates in the three states regardless of whether the county received a grant. In fact, in Pennsylvania, counties that didn’t receive grants saw a greater increase in voters in 2020.
But interviews with elections officials show the grants helped them process and count the huge increase in ballots. While they were glad for the assistance this year, many have concerns about relying on private money in the future and would prefer election offices get the funding they need from the government.
“I believe in grants and working with them,” said Chris Swope, city clerk in Lansing, Michigan. “But I can’t count on this in two years or four years. I’ve got to make sure that we’re able to do what we need to do on the resources we have.”
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