A Georgia county has accepted a $2 million grant for election operations from a Big Tech-aligned organization that distributed similar grants in 2020 from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, doing so despite a state law prohibiting local election offices from taking private money.

The Georgia law, however, could allow such private funds to go to a county’s treasury to be appropriated for use by an election office, effectively making the restriction difficult to enforce, one knowledgable lawyer in the state told The Daily Signal.  

The county in question is DeKalb County, which earlier accepted nearly $10 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life during the 2020 presidential election. 

Last April, CTCL launched the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a five-year, $80 million project in partnership with groups financed by two liberal groups, Arabella Advisors and Democracy Fund. The election alliance went on to offer $2 million to DeKalb County for use in the 2024 elections.

In a public statement, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, a Democrat, clearly said the $2 million would be used by the Board of Registration and Elections, even if filtered through other offices. 

 “The county is pleased to be a recipient of this funding in support of the Elections Department’s ongoing efforts to serve as a model for election integrity not just in Georgia but throughout our nation,” Thurmond said Thursday.

Quinn Hudson, chief communications officer for DeKalb County, told The Daily Signal on Thursday that the person who could address the issue, including the apparent conflict with state law, would be out until next week. 

Last week, however, a Georgia news outlet called Decaturish paraphrased DeKalb County Board of Registration and Elections Chairwoman Dele Lowman Smith as saying that “since election offices are not allowed to receive grants directly, the lengthy application process was led by the county’s finance department.”

DeKalb County, with a population of more than 700,000, includes part of Atlanta. The county seat is Decatur. 

Georgia’s Senate Bill 202, signed in 2021 by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, includes this language: “No superintendent shall take or accept any funding, grants, or gifts from any source other than from the governing authority of the county or municipality, the state of Georgia, or the federal government.”

The key words are “no superintendent,” which means no election superintendent, the lawyer told The Daily Signal, which agreed not to use his name. 

However, the law’s reference to “other than from the governing authority” opens the door for a local government to accept the private money and then allocate it toward election administration, the lawyer said. 

“It seems this is tailored to bypass the legalese and exploiting loopholes in the law,” Hayden Ludwig, senior investigative researcher at the Washington-based Capital Research Center, told The Daily Signal. 

“This obviously violates the spirit of the law,” Ludwig said. “Lawmakers weren’t concerned about which office the money went directly to. The concern was private entities funding elections.”

Since state laws differ, it’s hard to say how enforceable the bans on using private money to run elections will be in the 24 states that enacted them, Ludwig said. But the laws in Virginia and Florida contain some of the tightest language, he said. 

Legislators in states that have bans on using private money for elections should look at closing loopholes, said Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, which last month teamed with the John Locke Foundation to release a report on the election alliance.  

“The fact they are looking at the state law and evading the spirit of that law speaks volumes about the alliance,” Snead told The Daily Signal. “Georgia’s statutory language might be weak, but it was intended to cut off corrosive private money from funding elections. This should put other counties on guard against doing business with the alliance.”

In 2020, the Center for Tech and Civic Life distributed a total of $350 million to local election offices in 47 states with the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative begun by Facebook’s Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. 

Out of that pot of money, DeKalb County got two separate grants, one for $4.6 million and another for $4.8 million. 

Six of the 10 largest grant recipients per capita in 2020 were in the Atlanta area and DeKalb County that year got $12.59 per capita, according to the Capital Research Center. 

In the 10 counties that received the most election-related funds, Democrat nominee Joe Biden got a total of 1.49 million votes, about 378,000 more votes than party nominee Hillary Clinton did in 2016. 

In 2020, Donald Trump received a total of 691,000 in those 10 counties, an increase of only 92,000 votes over his 2016 performance, according to the Capital Research Center. 

The Center for Tech and Civic Life, which handles press inquiries for the election alliance, did not respond to inquiries for this story from The Daily Signal. 

“I am thrilled we have chosen DeKalb County as a Center for Election Excellence,” Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, said in a press release announcing the new $2 million grant. “DeKalb County is a leader in safe, secure, and inclusive elections that put voters first. This program will take their election administration work to the next level.”

The Alliance for Election Excellence is largely funded by The Audacious Project, which Inside Philanthropy describes as “a tech-heavy group of funders that lean liberal in their grantmaking.” They include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, novelist MacKenzie Scott, the MacArthur Foundation, and other traditionally left-leaning funders. 

The Daily Signal reported last week that a Utah county had been accepted as part of the grantmaking election alliance, but a county official said there would be no grants because of the state’s ban of such private money in elections.

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