Ban on ‘Zuckerbucks’ election money in Georgia heads to final votes



Committee backs ban on nonprofit donations to county election offices

Republican lawmakers advanced a bill Wednesday that would ban private donations to local Georgia election offices, a reaction to millions of dollars that have mostly been contributed to Democratic-run counties.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee voted along party lines, 8-6, to approve Senate Bill 222, putting it on track for final votes in the state House and Senate.

The bill follows an outcry from conservative groups after DeKalb County accepted $2 million in January from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a project of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which was funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The money was meant to support DeKalb’s operating budget and upgrade office facilities, according to the county’s grant application, but skeptics of “Zuckerbucks” say funding from nonprofits could influence the outcome of elections.

“I don’t believe that people give money for elections that don’t have a desired outcome or effect,” Ginger Bradshaw, a Fulton County poll manager, told a subcommittee Tuesday. “I think we need to outlaw all outside money for elections.”

DeKalb Election Board Chairwoman Dele Lowman Smith said county election offices need financial support beyond taxpayer funds to help pay for staff, polling places and equipment during high-turnout elections.

“To suggest that we cut off opportunities for people to exercise their right to participate in democracy in order to save some money is offensive, and it is anti-democratic,” Lowman Smith said.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

The Center for Tech and Civic Life previously gave $45 million to 43 Georgia counties in the 2020 election year, with 26 of those counties supporting Republican Donald Trump and 17 of them backing Democrat Joe Biden.

Democratic-leaning counties in metro areas received the bulk of the money, taking in 94% of donations, according to tax records compiled by the Capital Research Center, an organization that focuses on how nonprofits spend money on politics. Fulton County received the largest amount of money, followed by DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties in metro Atlanta.

“What’s happening is certain individuals selectively give to some communities and ignore others,” said state Sen. Max Burns, a Republican from Sylvania and sponsor of the bill.

Defenders of nonprofit donations say they were essential for election operations since they started during the coronavirus pandemic.

The money paid for items including equipment to process mail ballots, protective gear for election workers, elections staffing, absentee ballot postage costs and voter outreach.

“We want to have fair elections. We want them to be honest,” said state Rep. Rhonda Burnough, a Democrat from Riverdale. “But I don’t think it’s fair to keep giving all these responsibilities and all these things that elections workers have to figure out but there’s no more money for them.”

Georgia’s voting law passed two years ago 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 and require DeKalb to repay the $2 million it received. Democratic legislators and an attorney for the General Assembly said passing that kind of retroactive law could be unconstitutional since it was legal at the time DeKalb received the money.

Money could still be donated from nonprofit organizations to the state government. The State Election Board has proposed a plan to distribute outside funding to counties.

Under the bill, violations of restrictions on outside funding would become a felony punishable by at least a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Twenty-four states restrict use of private funds for election offices, according to the Capital Research Center.