Conservative groups raise money for voter-fraud probes as states ban election grants
“This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.”
It turns out that the much-publicized spate of new state laws banning private grants for elections may have left a route open for private money after all. It flows through law enforcement.
The announcement comes as some sheriffs have embarked on high-profile investigations into the 2020 election that echo debunked allegations of voter fraud, prompting worries that the sheriffs are overstepping their authority and working with activists intent on discrediting the election results.
“A little ironic, don’t you think?” said Neal Kelley, the former registrar of voters in Orange County, Calif. Kelley, who is also a former police officer, now chairs a committee supported by several outside nonprofits that is meant to build stronger relationships between election officials and law enforcement.
“We’ll fund law enforcement with private grants, but you guys [in election offices] can’t touch it, which makes no sense to me,” he said, pointing out that law enforcement at the polls is a sensitive issue because of the potential for voter intimidation.
Obviously, grants to sheriffs to pay for investigations into suspected voter fraud aren’t necessarily covered by laws banning grants for the purposes of election administration. But the public’s discomfort with the potential of private money to influence elections, and the perception that private dollars could sway public officials, could logically extend to grants fueling election-related investigations, too.
“If you’re truly motivated by concerns of partisan actors kind of getting in the space of election integrity, presumably this would cause the same concerns,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “I don’t see a distinction.”
As we’ve written before, election officials across the country accepted millions of dollars in private grants from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life and other groups to pay pandemic-driven election administration costs in 2020. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, funded the lion’s share of the grants (though former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger awarded millions of dollars via a separate program).
The CTCL grants didn’t have conditions attached to them. The nonprofits awarding the money stressed that Zuckerberg had no direct role in distributing the cash, no election official who applied was turned down, and every jurisdiction got the amount they requested.
Election officials themselves were quick to acknowledge that paying election costs via private grants isn’t ideal, but said the failure of state and federal governments to allocate enough dollars left them few options to deal with 2020’s pandemic-related costs.
Nonetheless, the grants set off a conspiracy theory-fueled backlash, with former President Donald Trump and his allies blaming them for his loss and alleging, without evidence, that the money was earmarked to boost Democratic turnout. That backlash prompted the new laws
Speakers at a panel on elections this week hosted by the America First Policy Institute, a think tank with close ties to Trump, repeatedly went back to the dangers of the CTCL grants, which panelists referred to as “Zuckbucks” or “Zuckerbucks,” and private funding.
“Think of the number of legislatures that after Zuckbucks was exposed that went out and actually passed proactive legislation that said we don’t want private dollars infected in our election systems,” said Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who in 2020 blocked Louisiana election officials from accepting such grants. Landry’s office didn’t respond to a question from Votebeat about whether Louisiana sheriffs could legally accept the newly announced grants.
Meanwhile, election officials are still struggling to assess what, exactly, is prohibited by the new laws banning private resources. The ACLU’s Lakin and others said they’re concerned about the statutes and what’s restricted under them.
For example, in Virginia, state legislators passed a new law this year that says election officials “shall not solicit, accept, use, or dispose of any money, grants, property, or services.” The sweeping language has left local registrars puzzling over whether seemingly benign longtime partnerships and donations are still allowed, said Brenda Cabrera, the director of elections/general registrar for the city of Fairfax and the current president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia.
“As time goes on, we’re discovering more and more things that probably fall into the category of, ‘You can’t do that any more,’” she said, giving examples including volunteers from local Scouting groups offering to help transport supplies or put up and remove signage at polling sites, or donations of pizza or coffee for election workers.
“You’re talking about people who make a career in adhering to laws,” she said, referring to local election officials. “They want to be compliant. They’re very concerned about that. But the letter of this law seems to be far more restrictive than is really logical.”
Chris Piper, the former state elections commissioner for Virginia, said he and the state’s registrars “expressed concern” over some of the language in the new law before it passed. Piper is now chief operating officer of The Elections Group, an elections consulting firm that provides many services and resources to election officials pro bono.
Banning private money in elections isn’t a bad motivation, he said, but has to be balanced with providing proper funding and “the language needs to be carefully crafted so we don’t end up with some of these unintended consequences where election officials actually get no support. That’s not what anybody wants.”
That brings us back to the new initiative from True the Vote, the conservative nonprofit behind the film “2000 Mules,” which claims thousands of so-called “ballot harvesters,” whom the film refers to as “mules,” illegally deposited ballots into drop boxes during the November 2020 election. The film’s allegations, which rely heavily on inconclusive cell phone location data, have been widely debunked.
According to Reuters, True the Vote said the coalition with the sheriffs’ groups is meant to “encourage sheriffs to pursue election-fraud claims,” and also plans to “provide sheriffs with ‘artificial intelligence’ software to assist in analyzing the video they collect,” as well as setting up hotlines to alert sheriffs to suspicious activity related to elections. The organization has said it has raised $100,000 for its sheriffs’ initiatives so far, and hopes to raise $1 million.
One of the groups, Protect America Now, is run by Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona. The New York Times reported that when discussing the True the Vote partnership at a recent Arizona rally, Lamb said, “We will not let happen what happened in 2020.”
Sam Oliker-Friedland, executive director of the Institute for Responsive Government, which partners with CTCL on the Election Infrastructure Initiative, pointed out that local sheriffs are typically better funded than local election administrators. In addition, he said, election administration is “one of the most transparent government functions that we have,” and law enforcement is not.
“With private funding of law enforcement you’re really going to be able to pay to have your neighbor investigated in a way that your neighbor can never dig into or learn about, and I think that is in many ways more dangerous,” he said.
In 1981, the Republican National Committee coordinated an effort to have armed, off-duty police at polling locations in New Jersey during a gubernatorial election, deterring voters, including many Black and Latino voters. The Democratic National Committee sued, alleging racially discriminatory voter suppression. As a result, the RNC for decades was subject to a consent decree limiting its poll watching efforts; it was lifted in 2018.
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