Throughout America, state legislatures are engaged in election reform to secure their states' election integrity by codifying policies, including the prohibition of certain toxic practices that prevailed under an umbrella response to COVID-19, but undermined election processes in varying degrees.
Ten states are including the elimination of private funding of public elections, as well as other measures regarding voter identification, signature approval, securing gaps in counting ballots, mostly common-sense measures that would return voter confidence to elections. This calamitous, unprecedented practice of allowing private money in local elections found its genesis in Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg's foundation funneling $350 million into county and municipal election jurisdictions throughout the Midwest, especially in swing states, to advantage Democrats in the 2020 election. [See the list of ten states with bill text and links at the end of this article below.]
In March, the Iowa legislature passed, and Governor Reynolds signed SF 413 (https://www.legis.iowa.gov/publications/search/document?fq=id:856339), the first of three election-reform bills. However, Republicans, including Iowa District 47 (Davenport) Senator Roby Smith and Iowa District 73 (Wilton) Representative Bobby Kaufmann (whose father Jeff Kaufmann is the current Chairman of the Iowa Republican Party), both made deliberate choices not to include this overarching prohibition of private money, without which all other election reform is moot.
Smith and Kaufmann chair their respective State Government Committees, working bicamerally to get bills through their respective houses. Which begs the question: What possible justification could these presumably conservative elected leaders have for so recklessly disregarding the clear and present danger of unaccountable monies injected into their state's local elections?
While Zuckerberg's money advantaged Democrats this time, that advantage could change on a dime (okay, a lot of dimes), depending on the agendas of whichever billionaires pony up. Principled voters on both sides of the aisle are aligned on the urgent demand for legislatures to unambiguously prohibit all private funding in public election jurisdictions in perpetuity. Non-negotiable.
State legislatures have the sole authority for the rules in state and local elections, including the authorities attributed to the Secretary of State for election administration. Prior to the 2020 election, Iowa Republican Secretary Paul Pate introduced, and by association endorsed, the progressive nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a partisan NGO that distributed Zuckerberg's foundation money to 64 Iowa counties in the form of COVID-19 Relief Grants for the 2020 election. Scott County received two grants totaling $424,000, even after Auditor Roxanna Moritz repeatedly reassured Scott Countians that the election budget was adequate and in good stead.
In a lawsuit brought by Iowa Voters Alliance (IVA) for a joint injunction of grant expenditures in Scott and Black Hawk counties, the counties argued that they were not bound by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which absolutely prohibits states from accepting private funding in public elections as tax dollars exclusively fund this public purpose. The two counties claimed they are separate jurisdictions from the state therefore not governed by HAVA, and there is nothing in the state law prohibiting their acceptance of outside money.
U.S. Circuit Court Chief Judge Leonard T. Strand ruled in the counties' favor precisely because there is no express prohibition in state law, albeit defiling the spirit of HAVA under cover of this lawfare loophole. More importantly, he ruled that the IVA did not prove their burden that they had been harmed by the grants. Part of lawfare here is that the election had not yet taken place for potential harm to have occurred. Similar election irregularity cases brought after the election were dismissed before being heard, claiming such suits had to be brought before the election. It is interesting to note that only two out of a total of 61 election integrity lawsuits were actually convened in which evidence was presented in court. All the other lawsuits involving various election irregularities were dismissed, therefore, to date, no evidence in those suits has ever been heard, let alone ruled upon, in a court of law.
That said, with the precedent now set in Iowa allowing private funding in local elections, unless Iowa state legislators include specific language to prohibit local election jurisdictions (counties and cities) from receiving unlimited infusions of cash – rife with strings aplenty governing such infusions regardless of which party benefits – then free and fair elections in Iowa are finished. As would the political careers of those responsible for such an inexplicable, inexcusable breach.
The same is true for the three Republican Scott County Board of Supervisors (SCBS): Tony Knobbe, Ken Beck, and recently infamous John Maxwell. Maxwell's supervisor seat is in litigation due to his simultaneously holding two political offices as School Board member and Scott County Supervisor – a practice prohibited under Iowa law. A conflict of interest arises in seven counties in Iowa when one person occupies seats both for a School Board and a County Supervisor due to their co-membership on Conference Boards.
Instead of appropriately accepting that, due to his victory as School Board member, he automatically vacated his Supervisor seat, Maxwell relied on Senator Smith to cure his problem via legislation, which Smith accommodated by amending the election reform legislation SF 413 after floor debates on the bill had closed.
Democrat Auditor Mortiz, ignoring her own incompetence in allowing Maxwell on the ballot in the first place, jumped on the opportunity to oust Maxwell and install a Democrat in his place as County Supervisor. In a just world, she would be recused from participating in choosing his replacement because as auditor she is grievously responsible for admitting Maxwell's second candidacy on the ballot.
Meanwhile, during a recent GOP Central Committee meeting, when Supervisors Knobbe and Beck were asked whether they had the authority to modify a county policy and prohibit private funding of county-run elections, both men affirmed that they did. Regardless, both Supervisors openly refused to engage in this critical election reform until the “Maxwell litigation is behind them.”
Well, boys, the Maxwell litigation is almost behind you, so time to step up or step down. No more excuses. Amending the county policy to prohibit private money and secure elections requires at least three votes and you have them. However, it is incumbent upon you all to avoid the risk that in the unlikely event Maxwell loses his Supervisor seat and a Democrat replaces him, the chances of modifying the county policy would be lost. Politically, all five Supervisors would be wise to protect county elections on behalf of all Scott Countians by approving such reform because this is not a partisan issue going forward.
Our Republican State Legislators (Smith and Kaufmann) have thus far refused to include a strict prohibition of private money infusions in any of their three state election reform bills. This is made more egregious given that the House and Senate are under Republican control, including a Republican Governor, suggesting a successful passage into law. Most Democrats I know would not object to this particular prohibition of private interference via unaccountable money in public elections, understanding its capacity for corruption.
When asked why the prohibition of private money in local elections was omitted in SF 413 and not included in the other two pending bills, Senator Smith said that, while he supported the measure, it was discussed but both House and Senate committees decided not to include it for fear of holding up the rest of the bills. Huh? This position is entirely unacceptable and bodes poorly for political futures if this stands. The current Iowa legislative session will close at the end of April, so reach out to your representatives and make your expectations for election reform known. Never underestimate incumbents' desire for re-election.
There is no universe in which this particular constitutional neglect by our GOP-elected representatives, whether state or county, can be justified, let alone forgiven. So far, each has put protecting one of their own ahead of voters, and at the expense of their oaths to provide free and fair elections for their entire constituency.
We the people have three tools for doing our part in America's governance: the power of the jury, the power of the purse, and the power of the vote. We need to re-engage with these tools because they are disappearing due to neglect. We have a real chance to shore up our power of the vote, but how can we realistically demand our representatives protect it, if we as individuals won't?
What is unfortunate, and revealing, is the missed opportunity by the current political leadership to robustly coalesce under a unified bipartisan (or at least a lot less partisan) mission of election integrity, locally and statewide.
Contact your elected officials. Every contact with an elected official has a multiplier effect of 300 people. That is no small amount of influence. Be vigilant, be brave, be heard!
Private Funding Public Elections Prohibition Legislation Provisions Under Consideration in Ten States as of early April 2021
Tennessee: Tennesee HB 1276, and SB 1315 ban private grants or in-kind contributions to the running of elections unless it is a federal or state appropriation or grant, it is approved by joint resolution of the legislature or approved by Governor, Speaker(s) of House and Senate, SoS, & Treasurer when the GA is not in session. https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/Billinfo/default.aspx?BillNumber=HB1276&ga=112
Wyoming SF 0142 : (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the state and each political subdivision or governmental entity that conducts or oversees elections in this state shall not accept or expend private, donated funds for registering voters or for preparing for, conducting or overseeing an election. This subsection shall not apply to the secretary of state when accepting or expending private funds for the explicit purpose of election training or education nor shall this subsection apply to meals or food provided or donated in support of election training or education or provided on election day to poll workers and other election staff.(b) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the acceptance and expenditure of federal funds for elections as provided by law. https://www.wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2021/SF0142
Arizona HB 2569 prohibits a city, town, county, school district or other public body that conducts elections from accepting private funds to conduct elections or registration drives. "NOTWITHSTANDING ANY OTHER LAW, THIS STATE AND A CITY, TOWN, COUNTY, SCHOOL DISTRICT OR OTHER PUBLIC BODY THAT CONDUCTS OR ADMINISTERS ELECTIONS MAY NOT RECEIVE OR EXPEND PRIVATE MONIES FOR PREPARING FOR, ADMINISTERING OR CONDUCTING AN ELECTION, INCLUDING REGISTERING VOTERS." https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/55leg/1R/summary/H.HB2569_022521_HOUSEENGROSSED.pdf
North Carolina SB 326: clarifies it's funding bill with the following language: SECTION 1.(a)G.S.163-22 is amended by adding a new subsection to read: "(s)Nothing in this Chapter shall grant authority to the State Board of Elections to accept private monetary donations for the purpose of administering elections or employing individuals on a temporary basis." "Nothing in this Chapter shall grant authority to county boards of elections to accept private monetary donations for the purpose of administering elections or employing individuals on a temporary basis." https://webservices.ncleg.gov/ViewBillDocument/2021/1611/0/DRS45168-LUa-12C
Wisconsin Assembly Bill 173 defines "private resources", and describes what the ban on private resources means. It prohibits localities from accepting the funds, but does allow the state Wisconsin Elections Commission to accept the funds if it distributes on a per capita basis, and if they get permission from the Joint Committee on Finance (This opens the door to our special joint committee on elections) Section 3. 12.085 of the statutes is created to read:1012.085 Private resources for election administration. (1) Definitions. (b) “Private resources” means moneys, equipment, materials, or personnel provided by any individual or nongovernmental entity, but does not include employees receiving paid leave to act as tabulators or election officials. (2) Ban on private resources for election administration. No official or agent of a county or municipality may apply for or accept any donation or grant of private resources for purposes of election administration, except as expressly authorized under chs. 5 to 12.(3) Commission acceptance of private moneys for election administration. If the commission accepts a donation or grant of moneys from an individual or nongovernmental entity for purposes of election administration, the commission may not expend those moneys except as follows:(b), the commission shall distribute the moneys to each municipality in this state on a per capita basis, except that if a distribution under this subdivision would result in any municipality receiving a sum of less than $25, the commission may retain the donation or grant and may apply the donation or grant to offset the commission's own expenses related to the administration of elections until such time as the commission accepts additional moneys under this subsection that, in total, would result in a minimum distribution amount of $25 or more. The commission may expend a donation or grant of moneys accepted under this subsection only as approved by the joint committee on finance. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2021/related/proposals/ab173
Florida HB 7041. "97.106 Prohibition on use of private funds for election related expenses. — No agency or state or local official responsible for conducting elections, including, but not limited to, a supervisor of elections, may solicit, accept, use, or dispose of any donation in the form of money, grants, property, or personal services from an individual or a nongovernmental entity for the purpose of funding election-related expenses or voter education or registration programs." (line 314). https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2021/7041/BillText/Filed/PDF
Idaho SB 1168. "Private Moneys Prohibited. Elections held in this state must be funded only by lawful appropriations from the government of the United States, the state of Idaho, or other local governments, including counties, cities, and special taxing districts. No county clerk, local elections office, or other local governing body administering or conducting an election may accept or expend any grant, gift, or funding from any private persons, corporations, organizations, business entities, political parties, or any other private entity..." https://legislature.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/sessioninfo/2021/legislation/S1168.pdf
South Carolina HB 3877 prohibits the State Election Commission and the County Boards of Voter Registration and Elections from receiving, accepting, or expending gifts, donations, or funding from private individuals, corporations, partnerships, trusts, or any third party not provided through ordinary state or county appropriations. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/billsearch.php?billnumbers=3877&session=124&summary=B
Louisiana HB 20: "No state or local official, including but not limited to a registrar of voters or a clerk of court, or agency responsible for conducting elections shall solicit, accept, use, or dispose of any donation in the form of money, grants, property, or personal services from individuals or profit or nonprofit corporations, for the purpose of paying costs related to conducting elections." http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1200134
Montana SB 335: "Section 1.Donations --prohibition.The state, the secretary of state, a county, a municipality, or the officers or employees of those entities may not solicit, accept, use, or dispose of a donation in the form of money, grants, property, or personal services from an individual or a corporation, whether operating for-profit or nonprofit, for the purpose of funding the functions or responsibilities of the state, county, or municipality to conduct an election pursuant to the provisions of Title 13. https://leg.mt.gov/bills/2021/billpdf/SB0335.pdf