Buncombe County poll worker Terry Davis checks in Brandon Williams at the Shiloh Community Center in Asheville on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

In 2020, nonprofit organizations gave hundreds of millions of dollars to states and counties around the country to help them run the election. 

The N.C. State Board of Elections received nearly $4.7 million, and at least 39 counties received additional funding, for nonpartisan election administration expenses like increasing poll worker pay or mailing out voter education pamphlets. 

Now, some Republican legislators want to ban private organizations from donating money to help the state or counties run elections. State Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, sponsored the bill and led discussion on Senate Bill 725 in the Senate Elections Committee last week. It passed a voice vote over Democratic objections and was sent to the rules committee. 

Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, said her Republican colleagues lack evidence for their claims about the need for the bill.

“To me it’s feeding the big lie, which is that there was something wrong with the way our election was conducted, to sow seeds of doubt about our election here in North Carolina, which is very unfortunate,” Marcus said. 

Neither Hise nor his Republican co-sponsors, Paul Newton and Warren Daniel, responded to several requests for comment, made both by emails and phone calls.

The funds, donated by organizations associated with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the former Republican governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, supported regular election procedures widely accepted in the past, such as paying poll workers or purchasing pens. According to the donors, the money helped increase voter participation.

During the Elections Committee meeting and during committee meetings for a similar bill stalled in the House, Republicans pushed for the bill, which they say is needed to prevent impropriety by having private funds be used in the administration of an election. 

But the funds are already required to be fully accounted for and must be accepted, spent and documented in accordance with current state law.

Republicans have not identified any instance of funds being used improperly. All expenditures from grant funds are subject to public records requests, and Carolina Public Press reviewed reports from several counties and the State Board of Elections. 

In a May 5 Elections Committee meeting in the House, Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, said the issue is not only about accounting for every dollar. The state should be careful to avoid even the impression of influence on an election, he said. 

“This is one of those things that’s kind of like an ethics thing to me that you try to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Szoka said. 

But, as with several of the election complaints brought by Republicans nationwide since Donald Trump and 147 Republicans in Congress attempted to overturn the November election results in several states, it is not clear where any appearances of impropriety come from but their accusations. 

When CPP asked Jane Propst, deputy elections director in heavily Republican McDowell County, whether the county’s election office heard concerns from voters about using private funds or undermining trust in the election, she answered simply.

“No, no, no,” she said. 

A shared ideal, but a difference in method 

Sen. Marcus said she supports keeping private money from influencing elections. 

“I would agree we should not have private money influencing the outcome of our elections,” she said. 

Marcus stressed that did not happen in 2020, and she supports preventing private influence on elections in the future. But a blanket ban on private funding is not the correct solution, she said, and proposed that guardrails on how private money could be spent would be more appropriate. 

Hise said counties are responsible for funding elections and that if organizations still wanted to donate, they could give money to the general fund, which the legislature would then appropriate to cover elections costs.  

But county boards of election submitted election budgets to their counties in February and March of 2020, before COVID-19 brought the state and the country to a standstill and ballooned election expenses. 

Further, the state board received millions in donations and several in-kind donations like a ballot-tracking system and lots of hand sanitizer from Anheuser-Busch. The board was “unaware of other sources” for funding, including from the legislature, according to State Board of Elections spokesperson Pat Gannon

“These donations meant that the SBE and county boards could use the federal money for other needs,” Gannon wrote in an email to CPP. 

Marcus did not think Hise’s suggestion to donate to the state’s general fund was serious, she said. 

David Becker, executive director and founder for the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a major elections funder in 2020, said he did not know how donations to the general fund would work, especially when money was needed quickly or when the legislature was out of session. 

Becker said he was also unsure how a legislature would guarantee that the money would be spent on nonpartisan election administration. 

Neither Hise nor his co-sponsors responded to questions about how donations to the state would work. 

An unfunded mandate?

Private funding should only be a secondary plan, Becker said. 

“Plan A is always and should always be that government fully funds and resources election officials to do the job they need to do to facilitate American democracy,” he said. 

The best way to prevent private funding in elections is to guarantee full funding for elections, Becker said. 

The proposed bill does not account for any additional funding for either the state or county boards. 

For that reason, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners is against the bill. As part of its legislative agenda, the association opposes all “efforts to erode existing county revenue streams with unfunded mandates,” according to spokesperson Lacy Pate

Counties had wide latitude to spend the funds from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Schwarzenegger Institute, the two major county-level funders. 

Christian Grose, a political science professor and academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy who oversaw the elections funding initiative, said states could spend the money however they saw fit, as long as it was for voter access. 

“The banning of philanthropic funding in the absence of additional funds, is effectively a cut,” Grose said. 

According to Becker, Grose and CTCL reports, private funding increased voter participation and decreased the number of rejected absentee-by-mail ballots. 

These results, Becker said, actually helped support the legitimacy of the election.

Where the money went, where it came from 

The funding process was uniform across CTCL, CEIR and the Schwarzenegger Institute. If an elections office asked for money, it received funding.

These were the only organizations to give monetary donations for election administration in North Carolina. 

CTCL targeted both state and county election offices nationwide, distributing approximately $350 million to “almost 2,500 election departments across 49 states,” according to its website. 

CEIR gave money to state boards of elections. Becker contacted every single state, he said, and ultimately his organization distributed over $64 million to 23 states.  

Schwarzenegger targeted his funding to states that were either fully or partially covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act before it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. He read that those states were disproportionately closing polling places, and he wanted to keep them open, according to the letter he wrote to every eligible state

The three organizations funded Republican and Democratic states and counties alike. 

Union County received $101,755.50 from CTCL and spent it on drive-thru voting, personal protective equipment, mail voting materials and other election administration needs. 

Warren County used money from the Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California to staff two new polling places. 

The State Board of Elections received $3,284,800 from CTCL for single-use pens and bonuses for poll workers at early voting sites, the most commonly used voting method in North Carolina. 

The board received another $1,410,000 from CEIR to mail voter education materials “to each household in our state,” according to Gannon.

Both CTCL and CEIR received the money they then distributed from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a funding organization set up by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

The proposed legislation to ban private funding would need to pass in the Senate and approved by the House before the legislative session ends on July 2. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, could then veto the bill, sign it or allow it to become law without his signature. 

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.