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Nonprofits helped pay to run elections in N.C. in 2020. Should that continue?
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Nonprofits helped pay to run elections in N.C. in 2020. Should that continue?

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Poll worker Catherine Nettles places a social distance marker for the voting line in the fellowship hall at Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Greensboro on Nov. 2, 2020. A bill in the state Senate would prohibit election officials from accepting private money, after nonprofit groups helped some counties buy extra pens, face masks and other coronavirus-related equipment, or helped pay poll workers, during the 2020 elections.

RALEIGH — Some North Carolina politicians want to ban counties from getting grant money or other outside help with funding elections in the future.

A bill in the state Senate would prohibit election officials from accepting private funds, after nonprofit groups helped some counties buy extra pens, face masks and other coronavirus-related equipment, or helped pay poll workers, during the 2020 elections. The bill passed through Senate committees last week, and is expected to soon receive a full vote on the Senate floor.

“There was an open door to private donations that were made with respect to election administration, which gave rise to the potential, and the actual appearance of impropriety,” said Republican Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County, one of the bill’s lead sponsors.

State and county election officials generally get the money needed to administer elections from public sources, though officials are authorized to secure funding from private sources at their discretion. Senate Bill 725 would change that, specifically blocking the State Board of Elections, county elections boards and county boards of commissioners from accepting private donations for the purpose of conducting elections or employing workers on a temporary basis.

Caroline Fry, the advocacy programs manager at Democracy NC, said in an interview the bill would be damaging to counties.

“This also tells a greater story about election funding in North Carolina, and how underfunded it is, and how much we need dedicated sources of election funding, which this bill does not do,” Fry said. “This bill would block counties from accessing grants from nonprofit organizations, as they did in 2020. But it would not create any new sources of public funding.”

But while voting rights activists are skeptical of the bill, Republicans have asked their Democratic colleagues to consider whether they’d like the idea of outside money in elections if, in 2024, conservative groups like those associated with the Koch family start funding elections, too.

They think that argument will win over at least some Democratic lawmakers. The proposal was originally part of a larger package of election reforms, which has since been split into three separate bills after attracting strong criticism from Democrats. Republicans hope that this provision on election funding, unlike some of the others, can attract bipartisan support.

On Thursday Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican from Burke County who sponsored the election bills, said directly that they split the bills up “based on our conversations with some members of the Democrat caucus.”

The bill did pass the Rules committee without any audible “no” votes Thursday, and Daniel said afterward he believes Democrats likely won’t oppose it as harshly as they have another bill, which would make changes to mail-in voting rules.

That bill would make Election Day the deadline that absentee ballots must be received by to be counted, as opposed to current law which allows them to be received up to three days after the election as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. It has seen particularly strong opposition from Democrats and advocates who want to expand access to voting, who have likened the measure to a “Jim Crow-era voter suppression tactic.” It has also drawn the attention of national think tanks like the Brennan Center, which claimed the bill was “designed to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color.”

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Banning outside money for elections

Republicans said during a Senate Rules Committee meeting Thursday that private grants and donations made to state and county elections boards last year, while not illegal, nonetheless created an appearance of outside influence.

“We want to eliminate that appearance of impropriety by eliminating the opportunity for private funds to flow into what is a uniquely governmental function,” Newton said.

Republicans also expressed concerns that private grants were disproportionately received by liberal-leaning counties, and focused on donations made by one group in particular, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which gave money to 36 North Carolina counties last year.

Andy Jackson, an elections law expert at the conservative John Locke Foundation, said in testimony to the Senate elections committee last week that the counties that got that money tended to vote, in aggregate, more liberal than the state as a whole.

When asked by Democratic Sen. Don Davis from Greenville if conservative-leaning counties had applied for CTCL grants and were denied, or if they had simply not applied for the money, Jackson said he did not know.

What the 2020 grants paid for

In response to a request for comment, the State Board of Elections said it received a grant from CTCL for $1 million to buy six million single-use pens that were distributed to all 100 counties for use at voting sites. It also got $2.28 million to provide bonuses to more than 10,000 workers across counties who staffed one-stop early voting sites, which became “the most popular voting method in our state” during the 2020 election, according to NCSBE spokesperson Pat Gannon.

NCSBE also received a grant totaling $1.4 million from the Center for Election Innovation & Research, which was used to send two direct mailings about absentee voting procedures and safety measures being implemented at voting sites to every household across the state. The grant helped state election officials reach voters at a time “when no advertising or marketing dollars were authorized or appropriated,” Gannon said.

Counties could separately apply for grant funding, and some did, Gannon said. A total of 36 counties applied for and received grants from CTCL, according to the organization’s website. Ten counties also applied for grants from the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California, which were used to hire poll workers and supply personal protective equipment.

Democrats have said that if the state is going to take away counties’ access to these outside revenue streams, lawmakers need to boost election funding to make up the difference. Republicans, however, are skeptical since historically local governments pay for elections, not the state.

They also said 2020 was a unique case, because of COVID-19, and the state shouldn’t commit to election funding based on what counties needed last year.

“It seems to me like you’re assuming a pandemic every year,” Newton said Thursday, after Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County asked about additional state funding for elections. “There were additional costs driven by the fact that we were voting through a pandemic. Hopefully that will not be a yearly occurrence.”

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