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America scrambles to take part in the Mark Zuckerberg $250 million gold rush

A feeding frenzy has begun.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles and points from a podium where he is giving a speech.
Mark Zuckerberg’s donation has led to a gold rush for his cash.
Paul Marotta / Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg’s $250 million gift to bolster local governments has set off a gold rush across the country as frenzied election officials rush to apply, secure, and deploy the money.

In rural America and the nation’s biggest cities alike, the cash bonanza is proving to be a godsend for election administrators who have insufficient budgets and who have been faced with the possibility of forgoing critical safety measures to protect voters from the coronavirus. But because Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, unveiled the gift just two months before Election Day, election officials are now scrambling to get their hands on the cash on an awfully pinched timeline.

Almost 2,000 election offices — about one-fifth of the country’s total election administration jurisdictions — have applied for the money, generating so much interest that the group awarding the funds, the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), had to extend the tight application deadline from October 1 to October 15. In some of these districts, the late checks are allowing them to increase their election budgets by as much as 30 or 40 percent, with the Zuckerberg gift replenishing coffers that were depleted by a deteriorating economy and stretched further by the costs of the pandemic.

Grants have ranged from large figures, like the $15 million that Dallas County, Texas, took home, to much smaller sums, like the $5,000 granted to small Maine coastal towns like Union.

That money was badly needed — but also introduced thorny ethical questions.

Mark Zuckerberg has kicked off a feeding frenzy across America

Word of the war chest has spread quickly among gobsmacked election officials, who call one another about the windfalls that various counties took home and wonder if this could be too good to be true. But they have to move quickly. As soon as election officials in Lansing, Michigan, heard that $440,000 in Zuckerberg money was coming their way — but before it even arrived — election officials raced to buy the last dozen ballot drop-boxes that a manufacturer had on hand so the boxes could be in place by the time ballots were mailed out.

There were initially concerns from several election experts that the money would essentially amount to too much, too late. Some worried that the timing would lead to flooding government offices with millions that they could not use effectively, or at least optimally, before Election Day. With the deadline extension, money could now arrive as late as the week before November 3. Amid all the chaos, Walt Latham, the elections director in York County, Virginia, for instance, said he simply didn’t have time to apply.

“A lot of us, when you’re busy with this you’re not necessarily even cleaning your house, and you’re barely doing your laundry,” he said. “This is not a calm time to start initiating new projects.”

But even harried election officials say the permissive rules for how the gift can be used have largely made the money “spendable.” Election officials can use the money to reimburse any costs, like buying election equipment, that were incurred as early as June, and they can still spend the funds as late as two months after Election Day, when they might, for instance, pay poll workers. Officials are also preparing to give back remaining money that they don’t spend.

One common, but perhaps unintended, way the Zuckerberg bucks are being used is to fill existing holes in counties’ election budgets for money they already spent, obviating the need for counties to find a way to make themselves whole. In Jackson County, Illinois, for instance, officials said they were running about $70,000 in the red, and the $43,000 they received from Zuckerberg will reduce that deficit. That does, however, effectively mean that the Zuckerberg grants are more shoring up county government’s budgets than they are allowing for additional Covid-19 protections.

For instance, Michelle Wilcox, the head of elections in Auglaize County in northwestern Ohio, went to Lowe’s last month and spent about $60 on her personal credit card to buy the last five boxes of gloves on the shelf. She was able to do that — despite the county’s $400,000 election budget being cut by 10 percent — because she was confident that the Zuckerberg money was in the offing.

“Just knowing that these funds are going to be available is just a reassurance of ‘Go ahead and get what we need now,’” she said. “I’m not going to [spend] $60 out of my personal money.”

The downsides of billionaires funding elections

The injection of money is nevertheless a stark example of private philanthropy compensating for a role traditionally played by the state. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, gifts from billionaires have had to play an astoundingly large role in shoring up America’s safety net and social services. Congress has failed to pass a new stimulus bill that would theoretically include billions in new money for election officials, leaving local administrators to rely on just $400 million set aside in the first stimulus measure in March.

For instance, South Carolina’s largest county, Charleston County, planned to offer a $25 supplement to the $165 that election officials planned to pay poll workers who volunteer on Election Day. When the pandemic hit, though, that supplement was scrapped, raising concerns from election officials that they would struggle to recruit workers. The $700,000 that the county received from Zuckerberg ultimately allowed them to add another $100 to each poll worker’s paycheck.

Conservative critics see a downside to this private money. The Thomas More Society, a nonprofit legal group that has some alliances with the Trump campaign, has alleged that the CTCL money — including some grants that predate the Zuckerberg gifts — that has gone out the door so far is largely going to counties primarily populated by Democratic voters; it has filed lawsuits in eight swing states with more to come. The group has no evidence that the CTCL is actively rejecting predominantly Republican areas, and the CTCL says the process is not competitive and so all eligible applicants will be approved for money.

But Phill Kline, the lead lawyer for the More Society, argued that billionaires privately funding elections introduces more subjectivity and less transparency than when billionaires are taxed and the government makes spending decisions by following an “objective” formula.

The Zuckerberg money is only growing increasingly partisan as more grants are announced. Conservative media personalities like Michelle Malkin have picked up on the lawsuit and started attacking the gifts. In Louisiana, the state’s GOP attorney general on Wednesday forced 26 interested local election officials not to pursue the money because of the “corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials.”

Zuckerberg, though, is not choosing where the money goes. Combined with the $50 million that Zuckerberg and Chan donated to secretaries of states, the $300 million gift is the billionaire couple’s second single-largest individual charitable gift ever. It has also been a brief public-relations respite for the oft-beleaguered Facebook founder. News about individual grants, primarily in local markets, has generated about $370,000 worth of news coverage for Zuckerberg, according to a report by Critical Mention prepared for Recode.

Not that this is translating everywhere. Frank Byrd, the clerk in Jackson County, said he wasn’t even aware of Zuckerberg’s involvement, though he did come across the accusation — seeded successfully by groups like Kline’s — that it came from a vague “liberal organization.”

“When you get money,” Byrd said, “you always try to tell yourself, ‘It’s all good.’”