Grants Help Georgia Counties Weather Pandemic, But Questions Linger About Private Money In Elections

Fulfilling millions of absentee ballot requests was among the challenges facing Georgia counties in 2020.

Emil Moffatt/WABE

In October, when DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond announced a $4.8 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, he said it would help fund the November elections and future elections.

“We want to make sure that we build an election system that all citizens of DeKalb can be proud of,” said Thurmond.

DeKalb wasn’t alone. Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb all received multi-million dollar grants from the organization, which counts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan among its major financial backers.

In total, more than three dozen Georgia counties got grant money from the group to help administer the November election in the midst of a pandemic. Counties faced additional costs brought on by COVID-19, such as hazard pay for workers, PPE, absentee ballot drop boxes and a surge in absentee ballots. With election budgets on the decline overall, the financial relief was welcome.

But some conservative groups worry about the influence such private money could have if it’s relied on to help cover the cost of elections.

“Should private interest groups like this – backed by a billionaire or two, rather than the state legislators of Georgia, be allowed to pick and choose where to boost election funding and turnout in the Peach State?” Scott Walter asked a Georgia Senate committee meeting last Thursday. Walter is with the Capital Research Center, a Washington think tank.

In Georgia, while the state legislature makes election law, county commissioners set the budgets for election offices.

Still, Walter’s point remains: what role, if any, should private organizations or companies play in funding elections?

Effect on Elections and Voter Turnout

Arguments that the grant money swayed the presidential election in Georgia, which Joe Biden won by 11,779 votes, aren’t supported by the numbers.

Tom Scheck is with APM reports, which looked at counties that received the grants and those that didn’t. The reporting found that the percentage increase in voter participation was roughly the same county-by-county, as were the gains made by Biden.

“And so there was a lot of this discussion about, you know, ‘this money’s going to help turn out Democratic votes’, but it really didn’t bear out in the numbers,” said Scheck.

Scheck also says legal challenges over the grants have been unsuccessful, in part, because the Center for Tech and Civic Life began awarding money to any county that applied after a subsequent $100 million donation from Zuckerberg and Chan in mid-September.

“And they said any jurisdiction across the country that wants funding will get it,” Scheck said.

Workers in DeKalb County wear face shields as they help conduct a hand recount of ballots during an audit of the presidential race in November. (Emil Moffatt/WABE) 

But Scheck says concerns about influence are likely to continue, as long as private money is involved.

“There’s a lot of political observers who say ‘if you want to try and erase those questions and eliminate them altogether, you should fully fund elections with taxpayer money, with public money and keep private money out of it,’” he said.

Democrats have been pushing for more federal funding for elections. For several months now, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has been calling for a $4 billion boost in federal election funding.

“Unfortunately, due to the failure of Mitch McConnell to pass The HEROES Act, the resources necessary to shore up the ability of every single election office in our country to meet this surge of need, went unanswered,” Abrams said in late October.

Whether that federal money comes may hinge on which party controls the U.S. Senate after the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs.