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America’s Elections Must Never be for Sale

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

“He who pays the piper calls the tune.” It’s a hard, fast rule in the world of politics, which is precisely why we must always be vigilant against the corrupting influence of private money in our public electoral process.

There was a great deal of consternation expressed throughout 2020 about funding nationwide elections in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Fortunately, our public institutions were up to the test. 

Unfortunately, we also experienced the reality of large-scale private election funding for the first time — and in the process discovered the reason we had never allowed it before.

Wealthy individuals and corporations, including Google and Arnold Schwarzeneggar, gave money to election officials all over the country during the last election cycle. None, however, came close to donating as much money as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who spent over $400 million on public elections through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. That’s roughly the same amount of money that the federal government appropriated to help state and local election officials cope with the additional expenses incurred because of COVID.

The overwhelming majority of Zuckerberg’s money went to an organization founded and run by leftist activists called the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). Especially early in the cycle, when it made the biggest impact, CTCL distributed the lion’s share of the Zuckerberg money to urban areas in the key swing states that ultimately decided the 2020 presidential election, such as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit. 

Zuckerberg and CTCL made sure to call the tune before they even paid the piper, crafting intricate grant agreements that obliged local election officials to meet strict conditions designed to boost voter turnout in blue strongholds, including a minimum number of ballot drop boxes and polling places. In return for compliance, theCTCL grants paid the salaries of election workers and funded the purchase of election equipment — including, in the case of Racine, Wisconsin, a $250,000 “portable polling booth on wheels,” in other words a Winnebago RV.

Whether such expenditures might have been desirable can be debated but they must not result in treating voters differently based on whether they live in red or blue areas of the state.  The Constitution and federal and state law prohibit as much.   Under the Constitution, state legislatures have sole authority for managing the conduct of federal elections, which is why even the money provided by Congress has to be administered by the states. Jurisdictions that received CTCL money, however, were obligated to follow a set of rules dictated by Mark Zuckerberg.

That should never have been allowed to happen, but too many public officials at all levels were willing to turn a blind eye to the law, either out of partisan opportunism or because they genuinely believed that COVID justified their action. In fact, many states — including Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin — explicitly prohibit election officials from accepting funds from any source other than state appropriations and federal grants.

Those laws were flagrantly violated — and with no good reason, as it turns out.

An extensive investigative report by The Amistad Project reveals private monies funneled to the urban core in key swing states created a two-tier election system, with government spending millions to turnout likely Democrat voters while geographic areas containing Republican voters received little or no assistance as in-person polling places were shut down due to COVID emergency orders.

This should alarm everyone, regardless of politics. If we allow the 2020 presidential election to establish a precedent of tolerating private funding for our elections, then the polling booth itself will become just another front in the war between mega-donors on the left and right.

That’s exactly what the Democrats are trying to accomplish with a piece of legislation known as HR 1, which would codify all the irregularities and illegalities that we experienced in 2020 while inviting even more private money and influence into the process.

America’s elections should never be “bought and paid for,” and strenuous efforts must be made to prevent even the appearance of corruption in our electoral process. If we want to restore public confidence in our elections, the best place to start is by eliminating the corrupting influence of private money. 

Legislators in a number of states have introduced bills to do just that, but while some are well crafted, others are woefully inadequate. Some bills, for instance, allow local election officials to accept private money with approval from the secretary of state or their county or city , which cuts the legislature out of the process and codifies exactly the sort of behavior we saw in 2020. 

Other bills merely state that election officials must comply with existing laws forbidding them from accepting private monies, which is pointless and redundant. It’s the equivalent of having the police issue a stern reprimand to a burglar, rather than arresting him.

It’s good that lawmakers are recognizing the problem, but we have to be wise about the way we solve it. The best way to do that is to require approval from the state legislature before election administrators at any level can accept private funding, and to require that the private funding be consistent with the plan the state submitted to the federal government under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).  In the 2020 election, America was kicked out of the counting room and a billionaire allowed in.

The American people, not billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, should always be the ones “calling the tune.”

Phill Kline is the Former Kansas Attorney General. He currently serves as Pulpit Pastor of Amherst Baptist Church, a law school professor, and director of the Amistad Project of The Thomas More Society. 

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