(The Center Square) – When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s charity spent at least $8 million funding Michigan elections with unknown strings attached, some lawmakers felt uneasy.
Zuckerberg and his wife Priscella Chan, through their Chicago-based nonprofit, the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), contributed $400 million nationwide into the 2020 election.
CTCL said the funds supported local elections, including poll worker recruitment, hazard pay, poll rentals, and nonpartisan voter education to award over 2,500 grants to city and county elections offices nationwide.
In a phone interview with The Center Square, Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, explained his concern.
“I think it continues to add doubt to people’s minds about the integrity of our elections. When you have private entities funding all kinds of municipalities and dumping all kinds of money into our election administration, it just creates questions about what strings are attached.”
Hall asked what the public reaction would be if a prominent conservative donated millions to Michigan’s elections.
“I think people on the left would be saying, ‘wait a minute, what are they tying to this?’”
Erick Kaardal, an attorney who challenged the constitutionality of private election funding in Michigan, told The Center Square in a phone interview he believes the problem isn’t just the money but also the conditions upon accepting it.
“Before this election, everyone thought that elections were run based on conditions set by state legislatures and Congress,” Kaardal said.
Kaardal represented the Conservative Amistad Project of the Thomas More Society.
“Privatizing the management of elections undermines the integrity of our elections because private donors may dictate where and how hundreds of millions of dollars will be managed in these states,” Phill Kline, the project’s director, said in an Oct. 2020 statement.
CTCL didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. According to its website, its stated mission is to "connect Americans with the information they need to become and remain civically engaged, and ensure that our elections are more professional, inclusive, and secure."
Failed and pending lawsuits alleged the private grants disproportionately benefitted high-population, liberal communities and violated federal or state election law.
The New York Times reported the communities that were grant recipients cast about 76% of their combined votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Sen. Ed McBroom, chair of the Senate Oversight Committee, told The Center Square in an email that private interference with elections is a “serious concern.”
“After more than 30 hours of public, committee meetings and hundreds of hours of research and examination of thousands of documents, affidavits, audits, videos, and testimony, it is apparent to me that private, outside entities becoming entangled with the administration of our elections with little oversight is a serious concern,” McBroom said in a statement. “The money and requirements that accompany them are not part of a fair and transparent process and suggested reforms on this issue will be included in the Committee's report.”
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has said the 2020 election was the most secure in history and didn’t seem concerned about outsourcing election funding.
Michigan Department of State spokesperson Jake Rollow said the grants “bolstered local clerks’ offices ability to inform voters and carry out secure, safe and accurate elections that affirm public confidence in 2020.”
“Election offices are often under-resourced at the local level, have not been supported by the state legislature and many were eager for additional funding in 2020, when they were implementing new voting rights amidst a global pandemic,” Rollow said in a statement.
Hayden Ludwig, a senior investigative researcher at the conservative Capital Research Center, pointed out what he saw as hypocrisy.
“I find it really rich that many liberals find the idea of privatizing garbage collection to be abhorrent, but they’re perfectly OK with privatizing an election,” he told The Center Square.
The total amount of private grants is unknown but total at least $7.6 million.
Documents obtained by The Center Square through public records requests and sources show Detroit received $3.5 million; Wayne County: $432,620; Pontiac: $405,000; Flint: $475,625; Lansing: $488,000; Ann Arbor: $417,000; and Grand Rapids: $280,000.
Pontiac Interim City Clerk Garland Doyle told The Center Square the grant more than doubled its election budget, and they got a spending deadline extension. Without the money, they would have had “a huge budget deficit,” Doyle said in a phone interview.