Non-profit organizations gave hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize the conducting of state and local elections across America in 2020, but their efforts were not confined to hotly contested swing states, a new study has found.
According to a report about private funding of public elections in South Carolina, released Feb. 17 by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), non-profit groups led by the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), doled out $6.5 million in grant funding to help pay for elections in the reliably Republican state. South Carolina has voted for the GOP candidate for president in every election since 1964, with the exception of 1976.
In September 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed emergency laws, making voting by mail an option for all registered voters in the state for the coming General Election.
To help cover the cost of the expanded absentee voter process, and to advertise it as an option, the State Election Commission accepted a $1.3 million grant from the progressive, Washington-based non-profit called the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR).
CEIR’s revenues in 2017 were at just under $300,000. In the fall of 2020, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced they were donating $50 million to CEIR, a figure which later grew to nearly $70 million, according to the website of the Capital Research Center.
Another of Zuckerberg’s favored charities, CTCL, in late 2020 granted $5.2 million to 39 county governments in South Carolina to help their election officials cope with added expenses from the pandemic, according to the PILF report.
The PILF study found that 27 of those counties leaned Republican and 12 leaned toward Democrats.
The study also noted that Californian Arnold Schwarzenegger contributed $22,500 to Colleton County and $17,500 to Barnwell County to help with election expenses. Both counties are in South Carolina.
Schwarzenegger announced the availability of his “Democracy Grants for Voting Access & Election Administration” in late September of 2020.
“I’ve read news stories about over a thousand polling locations closing around the country, even before the pandemic… [for lack of funding]…I am making grants available for local and state election officials … These grants are completely non-partisan and will be offered to those who demonstrate the greatest need and ability to close gaps in voting access,” said Schwarzenegger in the announcement.
According to the PILF report, most of the money from the various grants was spent on things like personal protective equipment, but seven counties spent a total of $1.5 million of the grant money on storage buildings, pickup trucks, a van, enclosed trailers, iPads, and mobile phones.
The grants come with few restrictions other than that the money be spent on things that aid the administration of elections.
PILF President J. Christian Adams said in a press release that the effort of the non-profits “shows a commitment to building state and local governments’ reliance on corporate interests to run elections going forward.
“This is about building a sustaining infrastructure to fit ideological tastes,” he said.
The report warned that private money is subsidizing, and thereby, influencing, state and local election processes and procedures, by subtly pressuring officials to adopt and maintain election practices, such as mail-in voting, preferred by the outside groups.
Allowing elections to be funded by private grants could result in a bidding war between opposing donor groups trying to outdo each other competing for influence, the report said.
“Time is running out for South Carolinians to erase the risk of similar grants affecting 2022,” said Adams in the release.
A bipartisan bill, H 3444, to ban private grants to county election boards and to outlaw the use of ballot drop boxes is currently before the South Carolina legislature.
At least a dozen states with Republican-controlled state legislatures have adopted or are considering similar legislation.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has vetoed a package of election reform bills sponsored by Republicans, causing residents to petition to ban private funding for elections and ballot drop boxes by a vote of the people.