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House Republicans advance ‘Zuckerbucks’ ban out of committee

Bill would amend federal tax code to bar nonprofits from providing direct funding to election organizations

A voting sign is seen outside City Hall for New York’s 3rd District special election in Glen Cove, N.Y., on Feb. 4.
A voting sign is seen outside City Hall for New York’s 3rd District special election in Glen Cove, N.Y., on Feb. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans on Wednesday took a step toward blocking private funding for the administration of elections, pejoratively termed “Zuckerbucks,” despite the protests of Democrats.

In a hearing last week and again in a markup Wednesday, House Administration Committee Republicans decried private money flowing into elections, from groups like the Center for Tech and Civic Life. Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, provided more than $300 million to CTCL in 2020 to offset the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and promote voter access.

“Zuckerbucks, or private funding of elections, is election interference plain and simple,” House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil said. The panel voted on party lines, 6-3, to advance legislation that would amend the federal tax code to bar nonprofits from providing direct funding to election organizations. It would also prohibit Washington, D.C., from accepting or using private funds for elections.

The Wisconsin Republican has claimed such money was disproportionately used in 2020 to augment voting in Democrat-leaning areas and suggested on Wednesday that the practice undermines Americans’ trust in elections. Democrats have countered that local election offices need more support and that Republicans are fueling conspiracy theories about election security.

Ranking member Joseph D. Morelle argued that the flow of private money was filling a crucial gap. The New York Democrat offered an amendment that would have authorized the $5 billion President Joe Biden requested in fiscal 2024 to support election administrators.

“If this committee plans on barring election administrators from receiving much needed supplemental support from nonpartisan nonprofit organizations, the least we can do is ensure they have the resources they need to run safe, free and fair elections,” Morelle said. “All this committee is doing is cutting election administrators’ legs out from under them, leaving them high and dry as we rapidly approach a nationwide, critical presidential election.”

Morelle’s amendment was rejected, 3-6, along party lines.

Already 27 states have banned private funds in elections, including some with Democratic governors, like Pennsylvania, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oklahoma Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice offered that as evidence of bipartisan support for the ban, and there does appear to be some cross-party consensus on the issue, even within the committee.

At the hearing on so-called Zuckerbucks last week, Alabama Democratic Rep. Terri A. Sewell said she opposed private funding of elections. But at Wednesday’s markup she echoed Morelle’s point about more public funding.

“Elections cannot be secure or accessible if they’re not properly funded. It saddens me that this committee has chosen to pursue legislation that will suppress get-out-the-vote efforts instead of focusing on properly funding our elections and expanding access to the ballot box,” Sewell said.

Steil said federal funding of elections is something “worthy of our conversation,” but batted down Morelle’s proposal.

Speaking Monday at a conference of state and county officials at the Washington Hilton, he warned of red tape and diminished autonomy for local offices if the federal government were to play a larger role in funding elections. When local election officials detailed the grim realities of running elections on shoestring budgets, Steil replied that Congress doesn’t have extra money lying around to offer.

The bill advanced Wednesday, introduced by New York Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney, combines both the tax change that would block nonprofit election funding and the provision that would eliminate the use of private funds for elections in Washington, D.C.

Republicans have made election overhaul a top priority since taking back the House in the 118th Congress. The House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections, has had more than a dozen hearings and markups on election-related issues and last summer unveiled a sprawling package that Steil has called the “most conservative election integrity bill to be seriously considered in the House in over 20 years.”

Democrats have argued their colleagues’ hyper-focus on election security is an elaborate display of fealty to former President Donald Trump and his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

The GOP package, known as the American Confidence in Elections Act, advanced out of committee in July but has not gotten a vote on the House floor. Steil took a new tack in the fall, pulling out smaller batches of legislation for consideration.

On Wednesday, the committee also advanced measures that would allow states and localities to give hiring preference to veterans and individuals with disabilities for election worker positions and that would modernize electioneering reporting requirements with the Federal Election Commission. Both advanced by voice vote with bipartisan support.

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