An election official wipes down a desk at the Agricultural Service Center in Buckingham, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)
Election offices in Virginia will no longer be able to accept private grant money under a new law passed in response to a $3.7 million infusion local election administrators got in 2020 from a nonprofit funded partly by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which says it 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.
In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, CTCL announced it was making grant funding available to help local officials conduct safe elections under 2020’s extraordinary circumstances. The Zuckerberg tie prompted a multi-state backlash from conservatives, who used the term “Zuck Bucks” to denounce what they claimed was a billionaire’s shadowy effort to swing election outcomes. But the group insisted its efforts were non-partisan, and documentation for some Virginia grants indicates local officials often used the money for seemingly innocuous, apolitical functions, like extra cleaning or additional resources to handle an unanticipated surge of mail-in ballots.
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, one of the bill’s chief patrons, said earlier this year that no matter the intent or partisan leanings of any group, outside money shouldn’t be involved in the running of local elections that should be fully funded by the government.
“If we’re not able to give them the money they need to conduct a free and fair election, then we’re not doing our jobs correctly,” Stanley said in committee testimony.
The law banning the practice passed the Republican-led House of Delegates along party lines. But the Democratic-controlled Senate also approved it unanimously after additional guardrails were added to avoid inhibiting more routine election activity like third-party voter registration drives or federal government grants that might involve private funding sources. The bill also includes a specific exemption allowing privately owned buildings to be used as polling places without running afoul of the new law.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned on “election integrity” themes last year, signed the bill last month. The law takes effect July 1.
“Virginia joined more than a dozen states that took strong action to defend the integrity of state and local elections and the governor is proud to have signed this bill,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said, noting the bill’s bipartisan support.
According to the CTCL’s website, the group distributed a total of nearly $350 million in grants to almost 2,500 election offices, including 38 in Virginia. The group did not respond to requests for comment, but defended the grant program in a news release issued last fall.
“There were no partisan questions in the grant applications,” the release said, emphasizing 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 the jurisdictions across the political spectrum that received money, partisan considerations played no role in the availability or awarding of funding.”
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced contributions of $350 million to CTCL to be redistributed to local offices to assist with the country’s election infrastructure and voting process.
Some Democrats pushed back against what they felt was a conspiratorial tone to some of the discussion about the bill.
In 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 drop boxes.
“The concern is that they would influence where the lockboxes go,” Wachsmann said of private funders. “And they may choose locations that they know may swing one way for one candidate or against another candidate.”
In testimony before the House Privileges and Elections Committee, Melody Clarke, a conservative activist with Heritage Action, suggested the CTCL money was “used in targeted areas to impact elections across the nation.”
“Even under the purest of motives, private election funding given to government offices is inappropriate. It creates distrust,” Clarke said.
Local election offices had to apply to receive grant funding from CTCL, and the applications had to specify what need the money would go toward.
In light of that, Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, said at the hearing, the grant program’s critics were wrongly accusing local election offices of being involved in something “nefarious.”
“It is clear to me that Virginia has had safe and secure elections, including the lockboxes and early voting,” Mundon King said. “I just feel that this is an answer in search of a problem.”
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At the same hearing, former Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper, who oversaw the 2020 election, held up a bottle of Anheuser-Busch-branded hand sanitizer that the beer company made available to election officials in the early stages of the pandemic when hand sanitizer was hard to come by.
“We took them up on it,” Piper said, noting that if the ban had been in place in 2020, the state wouldn’t have been able accept the gifted hand sanitizer.
Piper said the state itself did not receive CTLC grant funds, and he emphasized the money was something local election offices had to seek out to meet a clearly defined need.
“It was a grant fund,” Piper said. “So you 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 the money was political in nature.
“Do we have any 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 was not making that claim, but asked Deeds if felt voters could feel confident in elections if corporate funders could bankroll the running of elections, which he joked might require disclaimers such as “Senate Election District 9 is sponsored by Dewalt Tools.”
“It should stay the purview of the government at the state and local level,” Stanley said.
Twenty-four of the 38 Virginia cities and counties that got CTLC grant funding in 2020 voted for former President Donald Trump, while 14 went for President Joe Biden. Democratic-leaning counties got the biggest grants, but Democrats in the General Assembly said that’s likely a reflection of the fact that those election offices in places like Fairfax County and Prince William County have the most voters to serve.
CTCL’s largest funding amount in 2020 went to Fairfax County, Virginia’s most heavily populated county and a Democratic stronghold that used a total of $1.2 million from the organization. A little under $1 million of the grant funding paid for overtime expenses and hundreds of seasonal hires to help with the massive increase in paperwork associated with the shift to voting by mail, according to Fairfax County Registrar Eric Spicer. Other money received under the grant, which was approved under a previous registrar, went toward postage costs and high-speed scanner for processing mailed ballots. Documentation of the grant funding provided by Spicer’s office verifies those expenditures in broad strokes, without going into granular detail.
The smallest CTLC grant in Virginia was $5,000 sent to strongly Republican Craig County in Southwest Virginia. Documentation provided by Craig County Registrar Joanna Ryan, who also noted the grant occurred under a predecessor, says the county of a little more than 5,000 people used the money to sanitize its polling places, “which put at ease voters & workers alike to increase turnout.”
“We are so thankful for your grant funding and will rely on you as an important resource in the future!,” a Craig County electoral board member wrote in a grant report sent back to CTLC.
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