What’s a good way to erode Americans’ trust in elections further? The answer can be found in North Carolina, where Gov. Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill that would ban private funding for public election administration. Such funding was rampant in 2020—in North Carolina and nationwide—and it likely benefited Democrats. Some states have already enacted a ban, and more should follow before the 2022 midterms.
Gov. Cooper vetoed a bill passed by the Republican legislature. Lawmakers were responding to 2020’s unprecedented phenomenon of individuals and organizations, usually from out of state, providing grants directly to state and local election officials. The money came from a variety of sources, but the largest by far was $400 million from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Primarily routed through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, the funding was dispersed to roughly 2,500 counties in 47 states and the District of Columbia. The center described it as a means of ensuring “safe and reliable” voting amid the pandemic, and while jurisdictions had to request the money, there was no mechanism for oversight or accountability once they had the funds in hand.
The Foundation for Government Accountability has filed freedom of information requests with more than 1,300 jurisdictions known to have received private election funding, including those in North Carolina. Details of the grants are limited, so we relied on reports from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which are often conflicting and incomplete. We have identified how much money many election officials received and, more important, how they spent it. This private funding is rife with problems, including probable impact on the election itself.
In North Carolina, 33 counties and the State Board of Elections received a combined $7.5 million. For counties that provided itemized reports, less than 20% was spent on health-related expenses such as personal protective equipment. The rest mainly went to poll-worker salaries and bonuses and voter-information drives. Nearly three-quarters of the funding went to jurisdictions that President Biden won. When overwhelmingly Democratic Durham County spent grant dollars on “voter education,” it may have encouraged higher turnout than would have otherwise happened—and that didn’t happen in correspondingly Republican counties that received significantly less or no outside funding.
We also found wide disparities in per capita funding between red and blue areas. In Pennsylvania, Biden-supporting counties received nearly $5 per registered voter, compared with a little more than $1 in places that voted for Donald Trump. Other states saw big gaps, too. This wide disparity increases the likelihood that private funding benefited Democratic candidates. In North Carolina that includes Gov. Cooper, who was narrowly re-elected in 2020.
Our findings raise serious concerns about whether private funding influenced the 2020 election. Eleven states, from Arizona and Florida to Ohio and Texas, have wisely enacted laws banning or severely restricting such funding over the past year. Yet with Gov. Cooper’s veto, North Carolina joins Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in defeating bills that passed state legislatures. The Democratic governors of these states were wrong to issue vetoes. Imagine private funding of more police stops, but only in certain neighborhoods, or private funding for tax departments to conduct more audits on certain business types or in certain ZIP Codes. Surely no state would let that happen, so why would they allow it for elections, the cornerstone of democracy?
More states should ban private funding for elections in their 2022 legislative sessions. Opponents will call this policy fear-mongering and claim that attempts to protect elections are what really undermine the public’s trust. Yet the point isn’t to relitigate the last election, and this dismissive attitude ignores legitimate concerns about private money spent by public bureaucracies in ways that influence voters. As 2020 proved, such funding isn’t transparent, it isn’t accountable, and it isn’t conducive to fair elections.
Mr. Bragdon is president and CEO and Mr. Horvath is state government affairs director at the Foundation for Government Accountability.