Ban on outside election money passes Georgia General Assembly

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Counties would be barred from receiving nonprofit financial help to run elections

A party-line vote in the Georgia Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would make it a felony for county election offices to receive money from nonprofit organizations following Republican complaints that donations disproportionately benefited Democratic areas.

The 32-21 vote on the bill, the most contentious election-related proposal at the Georgia Capitol this year, sends it to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.

Republicans pushed the bill after DeKalb County received a $2 million grant in January from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence. The alliance includes the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which was funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated more than $400 million to election offices nationwide in 2020.

Critics said nonprofit donations that have helped fund government election operations since 2020 overwhelmingly flowed to Democratic-run counties, but supporters of the money said it filled critical election funding shortfalls, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Is that fair to have this inequity of private dollars pouring into some counties to make it easy to vote and being stuck with only public dollars in other counties?” state Sen. Ed Setzler, a Republican from Acworth, asked during a debate on the measure, Senate Bill 222. “It should be fair for everybody.”

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Democrats said the bill would lead to underfunded elections, longer lines and higher taxes if local governments lack enough money to accommodate high turnout.

“It just smells bad because it really looks like what we’re going to do is make elections more difficult to conduct in large, urban and, dare I say, Democratic counties,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta whose district includes parts of DeKalb County. “What it seems like is that you want to force people to wait in line for four hours in hopes they don’t come back in Democratic counties.”

The Center for Tech and Civic Life gave $45 million to dozens of Georgia counties in 2020, with most of the cash going to Democratic-leaning counties while several Republican areas also received grants. It paid for items including equipment to process mail ballots, protective gear for election workers, election staffing, absentee ballot postage costs and voter outreach.

The bill would permit DeKalb to keep the $2 million it received, which was previously allowed under Georgia law.

But any county government official who accepts future outside money could face felony charges punishable by at least a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. The donation to DeKalb will help fund its election operating budget and upgrade office facilities, according to the county’s grant application.

Conservative organizations praised the bill after its passage.

“Private election funding puts public confidence in election administration at risk, particularly when that funding comes from ideologically motivated groups,” said Jason Snead, executive director for Honest Elections Project Action.

Voting rights groups said Kemp should veto the bill.

“We strongly condemn the passage of this bill and remain fervently opposed to any and all legislation that seeks to criminalize election workers for trying to do their jobs,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director for Fair Fight Action.

The voting overhaul the General Assembly passed two years ago also limited nonprofit contributions but didn’t shut them off entirely. The law, Senate Bill 202, prohibited direct contributions to county election offices while still allowing county governments to solicit grants on their behalf.

This year’s legislation would close that loophole. If Kemp signs the bill into law, contributions will still be allowed to the state government, which could then distribute funding among counties.