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Mark Zuckerberg Could Help Fund Virginia’s Elections

Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage
Mark Zuckerberg speaks at F8, a Facebook conference in 2018. (Anthony Quintano/Creative Commons)

Local election officials in Virginia could get financial help this year from an unlikely source: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan.

The couple donated $250 million to the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life earlier this month. The nonpartisan center is offering that money in grants starting at $5,000 to local election offices across the country, with exact funding connected to “citizen voting age population and other demographic data of your jurisdiction,” according to the group’s website. The money can be used for local needs that include voter outreach, poll worker recruitment, and equipment.

It’s not clear yet whether any Virginia localities have applied for the program; the center did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Elections Commissioner Chris Piper forwarded an email announcing the program to elections officials last week.

Election observers say it’s highly unusual for a nongovernmental organization to fund U.S. elections, even in a year where the need is so acute. Zuckerberg’s social media company has come under scrutiny for its role in spreading misinformation in elections.

In press releases, the center has connected the funding to Congress’ failure to pass additional election funding beyond $400 million allocated as part of the CARES Act; the separate Brennan Center for Justice estimated the additional cost of successfully running U.S. elections during the pandemic at $4 billion.

“This expansion of our COVID-19 Response Grant program provides our country's election officials and poll workers with the critical resources they need to safely serve every voter,” the Center for Tech and Civic Life wrote in a press release.

The group also leads training for election officials and aims to “harness the promise of technology to modernize the American voting experience,” according to its website.

Wise County registrar Allison Robbins, who also heads the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, said she expected her colleagues to apply for the grants. She said a top priority was funding to pay for temporary workers to help with a 45-day absentee voting period.

“I would fully expect that there are localities that would take advantage of this grant funding and put it to good use,” Robbins said.

The practice of applying to outside grants is perfectly legal under state law, according to Andrea Gaines, a spokesperson for Virginia’s Department of Elections. She said it was up to localities to decide to pursue the grants, and said the data was not tracked by the state.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said he’d never heard of private funding on this scale, but welcomed it.

“Election administration has always been seen as a function of government, to be paid for with public funds,” Sabato wrote in an email. “Given the pandemic, racial violence, and Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated charges about the integrity of the process, 2020 is a special case, and the extra money will be a godsend.”

George Mason University political science professor Jennifer Victor said she understood the acute need for funding in some jurisdictions. But she said Zuckerberg and the nonprofit, which bills itself as nonpartisan, could face criticism if observers perceive a bias in which localities receive funding.

“I think it does introduce the possibility of bias or corruption or at least the public appearance of impropriety,” Victor said.

The General Assembly approved $2 million in new funding earlier this month to pay for return postage for ballots. The Department of Elections also doled out $9 million in federal CARES Act funding, which localities can spend on everything from protective equipment to equipment and temporary staff.

State-funded local election officials were slated to get over $5 million in salary increases under a two-year budget lawmakers passed in March. Lawmakers froze that and other new spending in April, amid economic turbulence caused by the pandemic.

Local governments, many of which have been hit hard by the pandemic, shoulder much of the other costs of running elections. Richmond, which has escaped deep budget cuts felt in some other cities and counties, is budgeted to spend $2.2 million in 2020 on its general registrar’s office and electoral board.

Walt Latham, a registrar in York County, said he was too busy preparing for the start of absentee voting on September 18 to even consider applying for the grant.

“If this were like two or three months ago, well, that's different,” Latham said. “It's not the best time to be checking into grants right now for me.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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