WASHINGTON, D.C.—Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the state legislature should close loopholes on private money funding election offices.
“It would be a legislative remedy. We are in session now, so it is something they can address,” Raffensperger told The Daily Signal on Thursday. “We have some election bills right now that are in the hopper. So, you can modify that as it goes through the committee process.”
As The Daily Signal recently reported, despite a 2021 restriction on private money, DeKalb County, Georgia, accepted $2 million from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a project launched by the Center for Tech and Civic Life that distributed controversial election grants from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2020.
“It was the will of the General Assembly that if outside organizations wanted to help supply funding for counties, it would actually be channeled through the state election board, so that it could then disburse the funds on an equitable basis,” added Raffensperger, a Republican, who was in Washington this week for the annual meeting of the National Association for Secretaries of State.
Some watchdog groups determined the election grants were targeted to Democrat-leaning districts and were being used to get out the vote.
Georgia is among 24 states that have enacted bans or restrictions on private money funding election administrations. Falling mostly along partisan lines, Democrats attending the conference saw fewer problems with the private grants, while other Republicans expressed support for keeping a watchful eye on them.
Georgia election law experts say DeKalb County adhered to the letter of the law, if not the legislative intent, since the money did not go directly to the election office, but was authorized for the county treasury, then allocated. Requiring an elected county board to approve allocation does give an extra layer of accountability to the money that was absent when the Zuckerberg-funded grants went directly to election offices in 2020.
Still, Raffensperger would like to see changes.
“We have 159 counties. These are small counties that don’t have the resources to do the applications for grants,” he said. “So, the General Assembly’s intention was that it would be done through the State Election Board so that they could send it back out through the counties on a dollar grant basis. Everyone gets so many dollars on a per capita basis. There would be some uniformity to it, for an equitable disbursement.”
A spokesperson for DeKalb County, Georgia, did not respond to The Daily Signal for this article by publication time.
Election offices are underfunded, and such private funding is needed, contends former West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, an Institute for Politics fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who attended the annual meeting.
“Ultimately, state governments and the federal government should do the funding, adequately,” Tennant told The Daily Signal. “How are we going to secure elections? We need secure elections in terms of physical security, in terms of the processing of elections, in terms of security first and foremost of election workers. How do you get that?”
She said she didn’t know why the 24 states banned the money, but suggested it was “shortsighted,” and noted the election security kept Democratic, Republican and independent voters alike safe.
“County clerks offices are not self-funding. They are not allowed to sell advertising and make money that way,” joked Tennant, who oversaw West Virginia’s elections from 2009 through 2017.
“They need it to come from either the state level or the federal level. So, we saw that. In the absence of that, where are they supposed to get that? If we go around touting we want to make sure things are secure, you have to be able to fund it. So, if it comes from an organization that is helping to keep pollworkers safe, that is helping to keep election officials safe. That’s important.”
Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, a Democrat, said it really depends on who the funders of elections are and what their intent is.
“It depends on what it is. We don’t control the counties,” Hobbs told The Daily Signal. “For the state, we certainly work with companies like Microsoft and others. It really depends on the organization. It all depends on where [the money is] coming from.”
The Center for Tech and Civic Life, which handles press inquiries for the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, did not respond to The Daily Signal for this article.
The alliance is a project of the Center for Tech and Civic Life in partnership with other groups, some funded by left-wing donors, such as Arabella Advisors and the Democracy Fund. In some localities, the organization provides consulting and training for election offices in lieu of money.
Nebraska Secretary of State Robert Evnen, a Republican, said his state’s law, adopted in 2021, bans money and in-kind contributions that might include consulting.
“It’s bad policy to have private money funding election operations, to have private in-kind services provided for election operations. This is a proper function of government,” Evnen told The Daily Signal.
Evnen’s office helped draft his state’s bill.
“The bill passed by the Nebraska Legislature and signed by the governor prohibits money and in-kind goods and services,” he said. “We are going to watch very closely, because conducting elections is a government function and it shouldn’t be subsidized or influenced by private entities.”
Arkansas is not among the 24 states that passed such legislation, but its secretary of state, John Thurston, would support changing that.
“Some counties in Arkansas actually accepted some money. I don’t have the authority to tell the counties they can or cannot accept it. We, personally, the state, did not accept any private funds,” Thurston told The Daily Signal. “There is proposed legislation right now to not allow that. … It falls on the responsibility of the government to fund elections.”
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