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Lawmakers clash over ‘Zuckerbucks’ and how to stop private election funding

Local election offices need more federal money, Democrats argue at hearing

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated hundreds of millions of dollars to support election administration efforts during the pandemic.
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated hundreds of millions of dollars to support election administration efforts during the pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Wednesday’s House Administration Committee hearing on private donations helping to fund the administration of elections was contentious, even though everyone seemed to be on the same page.

“All of us can agree that no private funding should be funding our elections — it should be public funding,” said Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala.

But the hearing’s subtext — the thoroughly refuted, yet still repeated claims that the 2020 election was invalid — kept the panel’s Democrats and Republicans talking past one another.

The hearing centered on grants that the Center for Tech and Civic Life and related groups provided to state and local election offices in 2020. Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated more than $300 million to the effort. Republicans protested that these “Zuckerbucks,” which largely went toward pandemic-related costs, flowed disproportionately to Democratic-leaning jurisdictions.

House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil complained that election officials in Democratic-leaning areas, buoyed by private donations from the likes of Zuckerberg, deployed strategies, some novel, to increase voting levels. “These funds were intended to support poll worker recruitment efforts or the purchase of new equipment. But in reality, some of these funds were used primarily for voter registration events and get-out-the-vote efforts in Democratic-leaning cities and towns,” the Wisconsin Republican said, arguing that these measures undermined the public’s trust in election administration.

Democrats rolled their eyes at those gripes, saying Wednesday’s hearing was little more than a pretext to implicitly question the 2020 election results. “We should be crystal clear: We are only here today discussing this topic yet again because of the endless tantrum the presumptive Republican nominee for president, his enablers in Congress, and his cronies in the right-wing media echo chamber continue to throw,” said ranking member Joseph D. Morelle of New York. “They insist, with no evidence, that nonprofit grants supporting the urgent public health needs of election officials in 2020 in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic was some nefarious partisan scandal.” 

The private funding is helping meet a critical deficit, Morelle said, caused by Congress’ inadequate appropriations. “This committee has heard repeatedly from election administrators how critically they need additional funding to run safe and secure elections,” Morelle said.

Private funding is now banned or limited in 27 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Will Flanders, research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, testified that his group’s analysis showed the CTCL funding, while nominally nonpartisan, benefitted Democrats in effect. He noted that the grants were “likely legal” under Wisconsin law at the time, arguing that made a legislative ban all the more important. “This is important because even if we took CTCL at their word that this is a nonpartisan process, it doesn’t mean that the next person engaged in similar tactics will even have the slightest lip service given to nonpartisanship,” he said.

While Congress from time to time appropriates funds to support election administration — such as to help cover the capital costs of upgrading equipment and, most recently, to address the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic — elections are mostly administered, and funded, at the state and local level.

Zachary Mohr, an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration, said his decade of research into election administration led him to believe localities simply need more help. When local budgets get tight, election board budgets face cuts before other needs, like police and school budgets, so the federal government should chip in consistently to fill the gap. “Academic research puts the amount spent by the local election jurisdictions on election administration in the range of $1.5 to $5 billion per year. Ideally, the federal government would pay a meaningful share of this cost,” the Democrats’ witness said, noting that the cost of running elections is often highest in rural areas.

Democrats have been pushing for more federal funding in elections for years as part of a suite of electoral proposals they’ve introduced repeatedly in recent Congresses that would also seek to end gerrymandering and beef up campaign finance disclosures. The GOP has largely opposed these proposals.

“It would be unnecessary for philanthropic organizations to contribute to elections if there was adequate funding,” Morelle said.

Republicans have their own election overhaul proposals. Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York reintroduced the so-called End Zuckerbucks Act last year, which would prohibit 501(c)(3)s from providing direct funding to election offices, and similar language is included as part of Steil’s broader elections package, known as the American Confidence in Elections Act.

The House Administration Committee marked up and advanced that broader package last year, and has held a series of hearings this Congress spotlighting its various components.

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