On April 1, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (R) signed House Bill 1365 into law, banning elections offices in the state from accepting private donations or grants. In doing so, Mississippi joined the growing ranks of Republican-controlled states to enact such a ban. Fueled by conspiracy theories about the role of outside money in 2020, Republicans claim these laws are necessary to ensure election integrity. But rather than make our elections more secure, bans on private funding increase the risk our elections are underfunded.
Election offices are like public schools.
In many ways, states treat funding elections offices similar to how they treat funding for our public schools. In a perfect world, schools would have enough money to provide the resources their students need — such as classroom supplies, extracurricular activities, field trips, etc. — for free. But right now, we don’t live in such a world, so schools have to find ways to make up the gap. They do so by soliciting donations, hosting fundraisers and asking parents to cover some costs. Likewise, in an ideal world, elections offices would be fully funded. But in actuality, they are chronically underfunded, so private donations and grants make up the difference.
2020 was a perfect example of this dynamic. The measures states took to hold an election safely during a pandemic imposed huge costs on election offices, but Congress didn’t allot any additional funding for the November election. Unsurprisingly, many election offices turned to outside grants and donations to close the gap:
- Coconino County in Arizona used a $614,000 grant to run ads promoting voting options in both English and Navajo and hire 19 additional staffers to help Navajo Nation residents register and vote.
- Philadelphia used $10 million in donations to buy new machines to handle the unprecedented surge in mail-in ballots.
- Wisconsin’s five largest cities collectively received $6.3 million to open voting sites, set up drive-thru voting and drop boxes and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to poll workers.
Outside money proved to be a lifeline that helped officials successfully run a national election in unprecedented circumstances. Yet rather than acknowledge the importance of election grants, Republicans have turned against them.
These grants have become the target of right-wing conspiracy theories.
In the aftermath of the election, these private grants — like ballot drop boxes — became a casualty in the broader Republican assault on mail-in voting, often because the grant money was used to help election offices deal with the massive increase in mail-in ballots. Republican antipathy toward Facebook also likely contributed, as Mark Zuckerberg donated $350 million to election offices in 2020 through a grant program run by the Center for Technology and Civic Life.
Republicans began to imply these grants played a sinister role in the election. In Wisconsin, a partisan investigator hired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) called the grants “illegal bribery.” J.D. Vance, a Republican senate candidate in Ohio, wrote an op-ed in the New York Post arguing Zuckerberg “[bought] the presidency for Joe Biden.” While following the logic of Republican election conspiracies is never easy, the idea seems to be that the outside money was used to illegitimately boost the turnout of Democratic-leaning voters — despite the fact that counties that received grants didn’t have consistent differences in turnout from counties that didn’t receive such funds.
Of course, these facts don’t matter to the GOP. And just like mail-in voting and drop boxes, once Republicans began casting doubt on the legitimacy of these grants, legislators began to target them with legislation.
Since 2020, 29 states have proposed legislation against private election money.
In the aftermath of the election, 29 states have proposed legislation targeting private election grants. Already, 13 have enacted complete bans on outside money and two (Texas and West Virginia) have placed regulations or restrictions on it. In Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, only their Democratic governors’ veto pens stopped legislation from becoming law. Importantly, none of the proposed legislation is limited to outside money from tech CEOs or specific groups; they target all private grants and donations no matter the source.
The wave of bills has been spurred along by model legislation developed by the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups. Likewise, the Republican State Leadership Committee has included a ban on outside money in its election best practices. With institutional support and party support, we can expect more of these bans to become law — especially if Republicans win control of more states in this year’s midterms.
These bans threaten to exacerbate the consequences of underfunded elections.
Republican bans on outside money will likely make the underfunding of our elections worse. Think back to the analogy with public schools — enacting bans on private grants is like banning school fundraisers. If a school doesn’t get any additional funding from the government, they will have to cut back on some of the things they provide for their students. Likewise, without private money elections offices will have to forego, among other things, hiring extra staff or upgrading equipment unless the government decides to allocate more money to election expenses. And there’s nothing to suggest any of the states that have passed bans will do so.
Underfunded elections will exacerbate all the problems — long lines, slow vote counting, poor staffing — that plague our elections. We can expect our elections to become more vulnerable to errors and it will be harder for elections offices to improve election security in the face of new threats. Ironically, a move Republicans claim is essential to ensure election integrity could very well end up undermining it.
Unfortunately, unlike many of the other recent election laws passed by Republicans, these outside money bans can’t be challenged in court. States have the power to limit how their election systems are funded and there’s not much anyone can do to stop them. As these bans continue to spread, it will become vital to ensure the government is fully funding elections — and if states don’t, Congress will have to step in. If Republican legislators are so concerned about the supposed influence of outside money in our elections, the easiest solution would be to just adequately fund them in the first place. They could easily do so — why aren’t they?