After Congress reportedly failed to fund local election offices, a nonprofit backed by Big Tech players—including $350 million from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—paid for the additional equipment and staff purportedly required to manage the widespread arrival of mail-in ballots.
"Notice there was no public debate or discussion about this," One America News Network's Jack Posobiec commented. "It just *happened.* Like so many things in the 2020 election."
The expository piece published by National Public Radio, entitled "How Private Money From Facebook's CEO Saved The 2020 Election," reported on how Bill Turner—who took over as acting director of voter services in Chester County, Pa., in September—was required to handle the expected mass influx of mail-in ballots.
Turner had previously served as the county's emergency manager, but similar challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic forced numerous election officials to burn through their budgets, NPR suggested.
"With a tight budget and little help from the federal government," Chester County applied for an election grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
Most notably, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $350 million to this previously small Chicago-based nonprofit.
"To be clear, I agree with those who say that government should have provided these funds, not private citizens," Zuckerberg posted on Oct. 13. "I hope that for future elections the government provides adequate funding. But absent that funding, I think it's critical that this urgent need is met."
NPR pointed partly to "Congress' neglect" that "necessitated an unprecedented bailout of election offices with private money funneled through the little-known nonprofit" while Turner blamed President Donald Trump "who continues to openly question—without evidence—the legitimacy of the process."
Congress allocated $400 million in March for election services, but that was just a tenth of what some officials alleged were necessary. "With little action from Congress, the private sector, led by Zuckerberg and Chan, stepped up," NPR quipped.
Trump supporters have since challenged the legality and neutrality of the grants, claiming that the initiative was aimed at boosting Democratic turnout.
Chester County is one of several large suburban counties in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The battleground state of Pennsylvania was pivotal to the Democratic nominee Joe Biden's presumptive victory over Trump, fueled by the former vice president's success in Chester County.
"Honestly, I don't know what we would have done without it," Turner said. The nonprofit gave Chester County $2.5 million for the election, which is more than the county's 2020 budget for voting services, NPR noted.
Under the "Absentee Ballot Assembly and Processing Equipment" budget overview, Chester County cited the need to hire 34 temporary full-time staff members paid at $20 per hour for 10 weeks totalling $340,000, the purchase of 10 envelope openers for $40,000, and one additional high-speed scanner at a cost of $100,000.
"This increased capacity to process and count the mail-in ballots is expected to cost approximately $480,000," Chester County administrator Robert Kagel wrote in the county's grant application dated Aug. 28 to the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
Turner used the grant to obtain 14 drop boxes for ballots, pay staff to watch those sites, and purchase body cameras to "ensure full transparency" related to the chain of custody.
A large portion of the grant was also spent on additional equipment and personnel to efficiently count and mail out ballots. Chester County processed 150,000 mail ballots for the Nov. 3 election in 36 hours. Without the newly-acquired resources, Turner stated that the process would have taken a week or longer.
Turner is one of 25 election directors from swing states interviewed by APM Reports. The Center for Tech and Civic Life dispensed grants to more than 2,500 jurisdictions this year to help departments pay for election administration.
The money arrived as "historically underfunded election department budgets were sapped from unforeseen purchases during the primaries," NPR wrote, and were allocated towards election workers, postage, and printing for the uptick of vote-by-mail residents.
After the Center for Tech and Civic Life declined repeated comment requests from APM Reports to discuss the full extent of funding and how it was used, the group listed the jurisdictions that received funding on its website in late October but failed to disclose dollar amounts or funding priorities for each jurisdiction.
However, through a series of interviews, public records requests, and a review of public meetings, APM Reports pieced together the details of grant awards in the five swing states that decided the election.
APM Reports obtained more than 30 applications and grant agreements between local election offices and the Center for Tech and Civic Life. Multiple jurisdictions received grants that were a small fraction of their election budgets while others saw theirs increase several times over.
In Kenosha, the grant money equaled more than four times the city’s 2020 election budget. Grants for the cities of Milwaukee and Philadelphia accounted for more than half of their respective election budgets.
Bulloch County Board of Commissioners senior accountant Peyton Fuller in Georgia said that his department applied believing it would receive a small grant of $6,000 maximum, but received an upwards of $60,000 instead.
Minneapolis elections director Grace Wachlarowicz acknowledged that her facility was in need of more space for ballot counting or else divide into multiple locations.
The city of Minneapolis then spent $300,000 of its $2.3 million grant from the center to rent 70,000 square-feet in the Minneapolis Convention Center.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's Liz Howard, suddenly election administrators could "fund their dream election."
Coconino County in Arizona established drive-by voting and early voting sites on the Navajo Indian Reservation while Lansing, Mich., spent $3,000 in text messaging and robocalls to inform citizens of vote-by-mail options.
Center for Tech and Civic Life officials have defended their actions in court and pubic announcements, insisting that the objective was to facilitate safe voting options during the coronavirus outbreak.
"In this moment of need, we feel so fortunate to be administering an open-call grant program available to every local election department in every state in the union to ensure that they have the staffing, training, and equipment necessary so that this November every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and have their vote counted," the Center for Tech and Civic Life argued in an issued statement on Sept. 24.
The nonprofit is continuing to offer grants to communities that are holding runoff elections in Georgia this January.
The center—founded in 2012 to help local election officials utilize technology—saw its saw its budget and its role increase significantly in 2020, after annual revenues of just $1.4 million in 2019. The center lists Google and Facebook as key funders and partners.
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