ELECTION SECURITYCash-Strapped Election Offices Have Fewer Resources After Bans on Private Grants

By Matt Vasilogambros

Published 24 April 2024

Pushed by conservative activists over the last four years, 28 states have banned outside funding in elections over the past four years. These activists based their campaign on claims, rejected by the courts and federal regulators, that such private grants – for example, by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan — during the 2020 presidential election benefitted democratic voters.

This month, Wisconsin joined 27 other states that have banned or restricted local governments’ use of private donations to run cash-strapped election offices, buy voting equipment or hire poll workers for Election Day.

All of the state laws came in the past four years, pushed by conservative lawmakers and activists who claim that Democratic voters disproportionately benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in grants primarily funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, during the 2020 presidential election.

Courts and federal regulators have rejected those claims, but the debate over the role of outside money reveals a broader worry among election experts, who say there are significant shortcomings in local government funding of election offices. That includes not just Election Day duties and vote counting, but also the year-round administrative work of maintaining voter rolls and taking care of and updating voting equipment.

Local municipal budgets are tight, and they vary depending on the tax base. It can be hard to justify a new ballot-counting machine when there are potholes to fix or schools to fund.

The ongoing funding uncertainty is untenable, said Tammy Patrick, the chief executive officer for programs at the National Association of Election Officials. Election officials need to have consistent funding to know they can replace outdated equipment and provide a secure and efficient voting experience, she said.

“Ultimately and ideally, we wouldn’t need to run such a critical function of our democracy relying on volunteers or donations,” said Patrick, who is leading a national initiative to promote election funding. “Everyone wants our elections to be secure, accessible, legitimate. And in order to have that, we have to support our election administrators.”

Funding Democracy
Counting ballots at 2:30 a.m. on election night in 2020, Dusty Farmer, the election clerk of Oshtemo Township, Michigan, realized she should have chosen a high-speed ballot tabulator.

When Michigan voters amended the state constitution in 2018 to allow for voting absentee without having to provide an excuse to officials, the number of mail-in ballots shot up and townships had to find a way to process those new ballots. Farmer opted for the less expensive, slower ballot processors.

After two years of lobbying her local board, she was able to secure the $40,000 high-speed counting machines last year — a “big investment” ahead of the 2024 election, she said.