by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
An important check on executive branch power is thwarted if executive agencies can secure funds outside of legislatively approved budgets or appropriation bills. If those funds come from private interests, then those interests gain the power of the purse reserved to the voter-elected legislature under both the United States and North Carolina constitutions. We witnessed at least the start of that threat with private election administration funding during the 2020 election.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which distributed $350 million from Mark Zuckerberg for election administration nationwide in 2020, is an outgrowth of a Democratic tech services organization.
CTCL granted $3.28 million to the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) in 2020 and awarded funds to about a third of North Carolina’s counties. Boards of elections received CTCL funding by applying for grants, meaning that CTCL had control over how the money was spent. Other organizations provided smaller grants to the SBE and county election boards.
Intentional or not, CTCL funds disproportionately went to counties that favored Democrats. An analysis of grants from CTCL to North Carolina county boards of elections found that voters in the counties that received CTCL funds supported Democrat Cal Cunningham in the 2020 US Senate race 52.7% to 47.3%, while voters in the counties that did not receive CTCL funds went for Republican Thom Tillis 53.6% to 46.4%.
We do not want a future where progressive groups disproportionately funding Democrat-leaning counties compete with conservative groups disproportionately funding Republican-leaning counties.
In response to the private election administration funding in 2020, several members of the North Carolina Senate introduced a bill (Senate Bill 725, “Prohibit Private Money in Elections Admin.“). S.B. 725 would ban the SBE, county election boards, and county commissions from accepting private funds to conduct elections or hire election workers.
The bill passed the Senate on a 28-22 party-line vote, not enough to overcome an expected veto by Gov. Roy Cooper. One of the objections voiced by Democrats to the bill was that it cut off private election administration funding without offering any alternative funding sources.
A new bill sponsored by Sen. Don Davis (D–Greene, Pitt) could be the starting point for creating a law both parties could support. Senate Bill 731, “Prohibit Private Money in Elect. Admin/EEA,” starts as a cut-and-paste of S.B. 725, banning direct private funding of election administration. What makes Davis’ bill different, however, is that it also creates an emergency election fund that can be filled with both private contributions and funds appropriated by the General Assembly.
An election emergency fund could be triggered by more mundane emergencies than the coronavirus pandemic, such as hurricanes. The end of hurricane season overlaps the start of early voting. Most recently, 28 counties had absentee and early voting affected by Hurricane Florence in 2018, and Hurricane Dorian shut down early voting in two odd-year congressional elections in 2019.
While Davis’ bill is a good start to finding a workable compromise on private election administration funding, it has several problems.
First, the “North Carolina Emergency Election Authority” the bill would create to “maintain the emergency election fund and authorize any disbursements made from the fund” (page two) would consist of five members appointed by the governor and two members assigned by the House and two by the Senate leaders of the General Assembly. Having a board dominated by the executive branch in charge of election funding would do little to return the power of the purse to the legislative branch. A better solution would be to have equal numbers of the board appointed by the leaders of the majority and minority parties of the General Assembly.
Also, the bill would include a nonemergency funding trigger when “The county board of commissioners of more than one-third of the counties adopts a resolution stating that the county board of elections lacks sufficient funds to properly administer the upcoming election.” With no criteria included in that trigger, it is an open invitation for boards of commissioners to vote themselves “free” money to cover election administration funding that the boards of commissioners themselves are responsible for providing.
Finally, the General Assembly should take a stab at devising a baseline formula for the distribution of emergency election funds to counties while granting the SBE some discretion in how the money is distributed.
Despite those flaws, S.B. 725 offers a solid start at addressing concerns from all sides regarding the privatization of election administration funding.