World News – United States – Short of cash to hold elections, local authorities turn to private funds


Cities and states face huge bills to cope with voting during pandemic Mark Zuckerberg has offered $ 300 million to help – and Conservatives are against it

WASHINGTON – Faced with rising spending and with Congress yet to provide more money, election administrators across the country are struggling to keep up with the extraordinary costs of holding an election amid pandemic

With Election Day nearly five weeks away and early voting underway in some states, many municipalities and states are turning to other sources of funding, including $ 300 million in grants from Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg

But now even that money is tangled up in partisan strife, with conservative groups opening a legal attack on Thursday to prevent private grants from going to election administrators in Democratic strongholds in four swing states, claiming they will help disproportionately democrats like the party presidential candidate, Joseph R Biden Jr

The skirmishes highlight how nearly every element of the election has become a part of the political battlefield, and fuel preemptive challenges over the legitimacy of the vote, which were fueled by President Trump, who refused this week engage in a peaceful transfer of power

The consequences of the lack of funding could be particularly pronounced, affecting not only the ability of state and local authorities to manage an increase in the number of postal ballots and to conduct in-person votes, but also the voter health and safety and workers polls

« Election officials have expenses they could never have anticipated, » said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a Washington-based nonprofit group that works with administrators electoral

He cited a state that was looking for $ 1.5 million to install plexiglass shields at its polling stations to protect against the coronavirus « Who would have thought eight months ago that this was going to be an expense you would need to a budget? »

Weber County, Utah, expects to spend an additional $ 69,000 – or 60 cents for each active registered voter – on pandemic-related costs, including ballot folding machines , label printers, personal protective equipment and county sole disinfectant polling place

The 2020 election season, said Ricky Hatch, clerk and auditor for Weber County, « blew all previous elections out of the water This took care of earlier, it’s more contentious, we have more costs, challenges and questions, there is less voter confidence and we are already seeing some of the emergency scenarios that you would hardly ever consider playing »

The prospect of election administrators tapping into large pools of private funds has raised new legal and political questions This is in part because it is unusual for elections to be subsidized by non-government funding at this level, but also because most of the money comes from nonprofit groups with liberal ties, and the biggest source of money, Mr. Zuckerberg, drew fire from all political circles

Democrats criticized Facebook for its insufficient efforts to tackle disinformation and for failing to do more to report M’s inaccurate or inflammatory posts Trump Some Republicans have claimed for years that Facebook suppresses their views and bristled against Mr. Zuckerberg’s support for immigration reform

In announcing his $ 300 million pledge this month, Mr. Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his wife, said that « many counties and states are strapped for financial resources and are working to determine how to staff and fund operations that will allow ballots to be cast and counted in a timely manner. »

Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also announced this week that he would provide grants to « state and local election officials who wish to reopen polling stations they have closed due to a lack of funding »

Congress has allocated $ 400 million for election administration in the $ 2 trillion relief package for the stimulation of coronavirus M Trump passed a law in March, but that was only a fraction of the $ 4 billion in additional costs estimated by experts who will be associated with hosting the 2020 election

A further stimulus bill passed by the House that would have allocated an additional $ 3 billion to election administrators has not been taken up in the Senate And while President Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have restarted negotiations this week on a new stimulus package that apparently includes election financing, local election experts and administrators say the money, even if accepted by both sides in a deeply divided Congress, could come too late to be of much help

This has made Zuckerberg grants and other private funding an attractive proposition for election administrators

Most of Zuckerberg’s money – $ 250 million – went to the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a Chicago-based nonprofit group, to be distributed to local election administration agencies The 50 millions of dollars left went to M Becker’s group, the Center for Election Research and Innovation, to give to state agencies overseeing elections to educate their residents on how to vote during the pandemic

About half of the states have applied for funding from the Center for Electoral Research and Innovation, Mr. Becker said

And the Center for Tech and Civic Life said the group received nominations from more than 1,100 county and city election officials this year.This represents more than 10% of the more than 10,000 local agencies that run elections across the country

In a proposal submitted to the Center for Tech and Civic Life in June, Wisconsin’s five largest cities indicated that they had « spent all or most of the resources budgeted for all of 2020 » to administer their primary elections in April, under what cities have called the « extraordinary circumstances » of the first days of the pandemic

The cities – Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha – have asked for $ 6 million from the center to pay for ballot boxes with security cameras, high-speed tabs, and hire more workers to count postal ballots , as well as masks, gloves, face shields, disinfectants and other supplies

If they did not get the funds, the cities warned, “It will leave communities like ours with no choice but to make tough decisions between health and the right to vote; between budgetary constraints and access to fundamental rights « 

Cities, which are a major source of Democratic votes in a key swing state, announced in July that they had secured approval for funds requested by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, and the following month, the center announced he would give Philadelphia $ 10 million, dramatically increasing the election budget of the biggest Democratic stronghold in one of the biggest swing states, and $ 2$ 2 million in adjacent Delaware County, plus an unspecified amount for undisclosed rural counties and municipalities

The source of funding for these grants is unclear. They were distributed before the announcement of Zuckerberg’s infusion and represented a sharp increase in the scale of the center’s financial support

The center is registered under a section of the tax code that allows it to keep its donors private, but in the four years before Zuckerberg’s announcement, his tax returns showed an average annual budget of $ 1.13 million. previously revealed that he had received grants from Google and Facebook And in April, the Skoll Foundation, which focuses on social entrepreneurship, announced that it had given $ 1.5 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life

But it wasn’t until M’s $ 250 million infusion Zuckerberg and Ms Chan learned this month that the Conservatives have started to rally to try to block grants to the center

Erick G Kaardal, an attorney affiliated with the Thomas More Society, a conservative nonprofit legal group that has been aligned with the Trump administration, predicted that Mr. Zuckerberg grants would set a bad precedent

This could « undermine, over time, the way we view elections, » he said in an interview, which could lead to a situation where « a group of billionaires will own this city ​​and a group of billionaires will own this city »

The grants to cities in Wisconsin were awarded by the center almost two months before Mr. Zuckerberg’s donation was announced But 10 days after Zuckerberg’s announcement, M Kaardal and other attorneys affiliated with the Thomas More Society have filed a complaint about the grants with the Wisconsin Election Commission

The complaint – which compared the subsidies to past efforts to make it easier for white voters to vote than black voters – was dismissed last week on technical grounds by the election commission

But on Thursday, the Thomas More Society said it has filed lawsuits in federal courts in four swing states – Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – against localities that received a combined total of nearly $ 26 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life The grants to Michigan communities seem to be the only ones to be announced after the Zuckerberg grant was announced

Grant recipients – East Lansing, Flint, Lansing and Wayne County in Michigan; Minneapolis; Delaware County and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Wisconsin’s five cities – cast about 76% of their combined votes in 2016 for Hillary Clinton

Mr. Kaardal, who is listed as the senior lawyer in the lawsuits against Minneapolis and the cities of Wisconsin, has been active in Republican politics. He and his company were also involved in the failed effort to involve the rapper Kanye West in the presidential election in Wisconsin, which was widely seen as a ploy to siphon off votes from M Biden

But he said efforts to block election administration grants were driven by concerns of fairness, not partisanship « You don’t want private federal election grants favoring one demographic over another. », He declared

The lawsuits, which have been filed on behalf of voters in those states and accompanied by requests for temporary prohibition orders to block grant spending, claim the grants violate federal laws empowering states, not them. localities, to hold elections, and argue that the subsidies bypassed this authority because they were not approved by the states

Christine A Reuther, the Delaware County councilor who drafted the grant proposal for her county, said the funding helped the county train polling officers and acquire drop boxes, some of which had been sent to municipalities with a Republican majority

« I don’t know why it is bad, let alone unconstitutional, for Delaware County to accept a grant to improve safe and secure access to the ballot box for all of its registered voters, » a- she said, calling the trial a « time-consuming effort and wasting resources »

In a statement, the Center for Tech and Civic Life called the lawsuits « baseless » and said the group was non-partisan, working with Democrats, Republicans and non-partisan officials

The Tories have raised concerns about the political track record of the center’s co-founders, who the lawsuits say worked together in an organizing group aligned with the Democratic Party, and Mr. Becker He had briefly worked for the liberal People for the American Way group after leaving the Justice Department, where he applied election laws under the Democratic and Republican administrations

Mr Becker said he worked with election administrators from both parties and that the six-member board of the Center for Election Innovation and Research included three Republicans Since his group’s grants go to state election agencies, he said the money would be used to educate voters in those states, not just in big cities that tended to vote Democratic.

Mr. Hatch, the Utah election official, sits on the advisory board of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, and is a Republican. He turned down other election grants, he said, « because I didn’t just don’t want any interference or influence to appear in a decision I make as an electoral administrator »

But he said that was not a problem with the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which he called « an excellent independent advocate for election officials and voters », adding that the grants « will be very useful for many jurisdictions »

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