At the center of the failure was the Brennan Center, which bucked local election officials and told Congress to focus on matters other than election funding.

By Rachel M. Cohen, The Intercept

Throughout 2020, as then-President Donald Trump issued baseless claims of voter fraud, local election officials called on the federal government to spend more to ensure a secure election season. Turnout was expected to break records; the pandemic had upended voting plans and safety protocols; and cybersecurity threats mounted. Leaders were acutely aware of the vulnerabilities in their aging election technology: Thousands of counties, for example, still ran their voting machines on Windows 7, an operating system so old it no longer receives routine security updates.

election voting machine

Congress did authorize $400 million to run elections in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, with funds permitted for expenses like buying personal protective equipment and hiring temporary staff to process the increase in absentee ballots. But those funds ran out quickly amid the costly primaries. Election officials, national security experts, and business leaders nationwide sent Congress letters throughout the spring and summer stressing why that figure could only represent a down payment ahead of the November election. A study of swing states conducted by the right-leaning Washington, D.C. think tank R Street Institute found that the election support afforded by the CARES Act provided just a small fraction — 10 to 18 percent — of what was needed.

But Congress didn’t budge. And so in an unprecedented move, private philanthropy stepped forward to plug the holes. A Chicago-based nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life administered nearly $350 million in philanthropic grants during the 2020 cycle, reaching almost 2,500 counties across 49 states. A majority of that funding was donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and every eligible election department that applied for funding was approved, according to the group. “Despite election officials basically begging our federal government for assistance, that money never came through,” Liz Howard, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, said weeks after the election. “Congress really failed our election officials.”

Fortunately for democracy, soon after Democrats took control of Congress and the White House, the party was laying plans to provide robust funding for election infrastructure.

But now, more than a year later, the politics that surround election funding have changed dramatically, though the need for modernizing and securing election systems has not. Conservatives, angry and suspicious that Facebook and Silicon Valley tilted the scales to help Democrats, have moved to ban future philanthropic donations for elections. In Wisconsin, a special counsel appointed by Republicans released an interim report accusing Zuckerberg of breaking bribery laws with the grants. More than a dozen Republican-controlled states, including GeorgiaFlorida and Arizona, have passed new restrictions on private donations to election offices since November 2020, and more states are currently drafting similar legislation. Absent new sources of government funding, these bans could yield cuts to election locations and election workers in the midterms.

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