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Mark Zuckerberg Helped Fund Arizona Election Operations. Then Republican Lawmaker Voted To Block Private Grants

By Ben Giles
Published: Tuesday, March 9, 2021 - 9:54am
Updated: Tuesday, March 9, 2021 - 9:57am

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Voters line up at a polling station
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Voters line up at a polling station at an Arizona Motor Vehicle Division office in north Phoenix on Nov. 3, 2020.

Election officials across the country, including some in Arizona, turned to private grants to help fund the cost of a safe and secure election amid the pandemic. Last week, Republicans in the Arizona House voted to prohibit Arizona’s election officials from accepting those dollars ever again.

HB 2569 passed on a party-line vote. It would ban officials at all levels of government — city, county and state — from accepting private funds to help pay for any aspect of election operations, including voter registration.

Rep. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) described elections as a core government responsibility. Keeping the funds in house is a matter of integrity, he said.

“We’ve heard that over the last four years. Our colleagues across the aisle have been adamant there (was) foreign interference, Russian interference in the election in 2016,” Hoffman said. “We are all on the same page. There should not be any type of foreign influence or interference in our election system.”

For Republicans, it was a domestic source of funding that drew their ire: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to election nonprofits that in turn distributed funds across the country, including in Arizona.

Kelli Butler
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Kelli Butler

The bill’s supporters can’t point to an instance in Arizona of the grants being spent in a partisan matter. But they warn even the perception of Zuckerberg’s influence is problematic, and reason enough to ensure state and local governments are the only source of election funding.

To an extent, Democrats like Rep. Kelli Butler agreed.

“Sounded like we all came to an agreement that it is the duty of taxpayers to fund the elections. But the fact is, we aren’t doing that right now,” Butler said. “And when we don’t have enough money to do that, I can’t blame them in the last election for seeking the funds they needed to perform those critical functions and keep our elections safe.”

That’s exactly the situation David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, watched play out in many states last fall. Governments all over the country, at all levels, didn’t step up, he said. By September, he’d found a way to fill the void.

“It certainly isn’t Plan A to have philanthropy step in to perform, to help fund what should be basic governmental functions,” Becker said.

Becker’s nonprofit accepted more than $50 million from Zuckerberg and Chan, and then offered those funds to top election officials in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Twenty-four applied, he said.

“There are states that were heavy Trump states that we gave money to, and there are states that were heavy Biden states that we gave money to,” Becker said. “And both are successes, because they led to high turnout of voters who found a way to express their voice in the middle of a global pandemic.”

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research
David Becker
David Becker

CEIR’s grants were designed to help states communicate with voters. Beyond that, state officials had full discretion how to best spend those dollars, Becker said. Arizona spent its nearly $4.8 million share on a statewide voter outreach program with a little over a month to go before election day.

Republican lawmakers have denied Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, funds for such a program in the past. Last summer, Republicans on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee stripped Hobbs of a $500,000 federal grant for voter outreach. Lawmakers said the money would be better spent by county election officials, even though those same officials supported Hobbs’ plan.

Will Gaona, Hobbs’ legislative affairs director, said the last-minute funding for outreach was crucial in a year when voting options were altered to accommodate coronavirus safety measures.

“From our office’s perspective, a very important part of election integrity is making sure that people can actually participate, that they know how to participate and have a meaningful opportunity to do so,” Gaona said.

Nine Arizona counties also received Zuckerberg and Chan’s donations through a separate nonprofit: The Center for Tech and Civic Life. Counties spent the money on a variety of needs, from training and paying poll workers, voter education and rent for venues large enough to allow safe distances between voters at in-person polling places.

La Paz County, one of the smallest in Arizona, spent its $18,000 replacing an old camera system that broke days before the August primary. Kimmy Olsen, the county’s deputy elections director, said officials had to use a laptop’s camera as an alternative to ensure voters had a socially-distanced way to observe the vote-counting process. Now they’ve got a brand new camera for future elections.

“It was actually a godsend that it showed up on our doorstep the way that it did,” Olsen said. “Because like I said, us smaller counties, we do struggle to survive, to get the things that we need.”

Olsen said she’d gladly accept grants if they’re offered again.

Becker said CEIR would gladly offer grants again, as long as donations are available and the funds are needed. But he’d rather that wasn’t the case.

“I hope the lesson that we take from this is we need to make sure that the government adequately funds one of its primary obligations, which is the facilitation of democracy, elections in the United States, regardless of conditions,” he said.

Opponents of HB 2569 say unless the effort to block grants is paired with additional state funding for education, there will be fewer opportunities to vote.

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