Georgia senators seek tighter ban on outside election funds

Georgia Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, R-Sylvania, explains a bill that would ban private contributions to counties for elections, on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, at the state Capitol in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Georgia senators are supporting a plan to make it a felony for local governments to accept money to fund elections from outside groups, except from the state or federal government.

The Senate voted 33-23 along party lines Thursday to approve Senate Bill 222, sending it to the House for more debate.

The measure would tighten a provision from a 2021 Georgia law that made it illegal for elections officials themselves to accept outside money after Republicans grew alarmed that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated more than $400 million to election officials nationwide.

Recently, suburban Atlanta’s DeKalb County accepted $2 million from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence to seek improvements and share best practices. The alliance includes the Center for Tech and Civic Life, Zuckerberg’s main funding vehicle from 2020. It set off a round of condemnations from Republicans that DeKalb had broken the law.

“We’ve had some communities that didn’t quite understand the intent, so this is an attempt to clarify the attempt,” said Senate Ethics Committee Chair Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican. He went on to say that a third party gives money for elections, “You influence the outcome of the elections.”

DeKalb County officials denied they violated the law. They said it’s legal for elected county commissioners to take money, as opposed to the election office.

The bill would require DeKalb to return the money.

“I think it’s very apparent that this bill is partisan backlash,” said Sen. Nabilah Islam, a Lawrenceville Democrat.

The measure is separate from a broader bill before the Senate that seeks to make it easier for challengers to disqualify voters over residency questions and to eliminate ballot drop boxes. That bill must pass the Senate before the end of the day Monday, the deadline for legislation to “cross over” to the House.

Republicans said any money should be donated to the Georgia Secretary of State and divvied up according to directions from the State Elections Board, which is dominated by Republican appointees.

“The issue with the third-party funding is it’s selective,” Burns said. “Not all 159 counties in Georgia enjoy that donation.”

Democrats, though, said the 2021 law made it more expensive for counties to run elections and that without outside funding, counties may have to raise taxes to pay for the increased expenses.

“We are burdening our election departments with extra responsibilities and costs while choking off the funding they need to meet all those demands,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat who represents parts of DeKalb County.

They demanded that the state increase election funding to counties if Republicans aren’t going to allow outside grants.

“Let’s just appropriate the money,” said Sen. Derek Mallow, a Savannah Democrat. “How about we agree on that?”

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