Montana Senate Passes Bill Banning Private Funding for Election Administration

UPDATE: On Monday, May 1, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed Senate Bill 117 into law.

UPDATE: On Friday, April 7, the Montana House passed Senate Bill 117 on a party line vote. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) for his signature.

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  On Thursday, Feb. 16, the Montana Senate passed Senate Bill 117, which would ban state, county or local officials from accepting private donations to fund election administration. At least four other states have proposed legislation to enact similar bans in 2023. These reactionary proposals reduce funding for under-resourced election officials and in the process, can open up elections to errors and vulnerabilities.

Notably, amendments were added to S.B. 117 clarifying that the ban would not preclude tribal nations from donating funds or polling place locations for the purpose of elections, nor would it prevent private organizations from using their own money on election-related initiatives. The ban would impose a felony penalty for violations of this law. S.B. 117 passed 34 to 14 in the Montana Senate, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats voting against. It is expected to advance through the Republican-controlled House before heading to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R), who has supported restrictive voting laws in the past. 

Election offices are chronically underfunded across the country. With fewer resources, voting issues such as long lines, slow vote counting and staffing troubles are exacerbated. Consequently, private grants can be crucial to running elections, but they have become a target for Republican lawmakers since 2020. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $400 million to election offices in 2020 through the Center for Technology and Civic Life, sparking outrage from conservatives. U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) wrote an op-ed in the New York Post arguing that Zuckerberg “[bought] the presidency for Joe Biden.”

Since 2020, 23 states have enacted legislation targeting private election administration grants, whether banning completely or severely regulating. Five other states (Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) saw such bans vetoed by Democratic governors. 

In 2023, the trend does not seem to be slowing down. A proposal banning outside grants for election administration in Arkansas already has 64 Republican co-sponsors in the state Senate. There are similar bills introduced in Connecticut, Minnesota and North Carolina.

Read S.B. 117 here.

Track the status of S.B. 117 here.

Read more about Republican bans on outside money here.