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Arizona GOP Lawmakers Aim To Stop Private Funds For Elections

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Last year, private grant money helped fund a lot of local election security efforts. Republicans in Arizona and elsewhere now want to block these private grants in large part because a lot of them came from Facebook's founder. We should note that Facebook is one of NPR's funders. Ben Giles from member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Arizona's bill passed the House last week in a party-line vote. It would ban officials at all levels - state, city and county - from accepting private grants to fund any aspect of election operations, including voter registration. Republican Representative Jake Hoffman, the bill's sponsor, said it's all about election integrity. He likened it to Democrats' concerns with Russian election interference.

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JAKE HOFFMAN: We are all on the same page. There should not be any type of foreign influence or interference in our election system.

GILES: For Republicans, it was a domestic source of funding that drew their ire - Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The bill's supporters can't point to an instance when grant funding was spent in a partisan manner, but they warn even the perception that Zuckerberg influenced the election is problematic and say that's reason enough to ensure state and local governments are the only source of election funding. To an extent, Democrats like Representative Kelli Butler agree.

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KELLI BUTLER: Sounded like we all came to an agreement that it is the duty of taxpayers to fund the elections. But the fact is we aren't doing that right now.

GILES: The House bill advanced without any corresponding boost in state funding for elections. It's a problem David Becker saw last fall. He's the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. Becker says the government at all levels didn't step up to fund elections during the pandemic. His nonprofit accepted more than $50 million from Zuckerberg and Chan and then offered funds to all 50 states and the District of Columbia - 24 applied.

DAVID BECKER: There are states that were heavy Trump states that we gave money to and there are states that were heavy Biden states that we gave money to. And both are successes because they led to high turnout of voters who found a way to express their voice in the middle of a global pandemic.

GILES: Becker said the grants were to help states communicate with voters. Beyond that, state officials had full discretion for how to best spend those dollars. Arizona used its share to put the word out about various options to vote. Will Gaona is the legislative liaison for the Democratic secretary of state. He says the outreach was doubly important in a year when voting options were changed on the fly to accommodate coronavirus safety measures.

WILL GAONA: From our office perspective, a very important part of election integrity is making sure that people can actually participate, that they know how to participate and have a meaningful opportunity to do so.

GILES: Nine Arizona counties also received Zukerberg and Chan's donations through a separate nonprofit, the Center for Tech and Civic Life. Counties spent the money training and paying poll workers, reaching out to voters and renting venues large enough to accommodate social distancing for in-person voting. La Paz County, one of the smallest in the state, spent its 18 grand replacing an old camera system that broke days before the August primary. Kimmy Olsen, the county's deputy elections director, says the cameras allowed the public to observe the vote counting process from a distance.

KIMMY OLSEN: It was actually a godsend that it showed up on our doorstep the way that it did because, like I said, us smaller counties, we do struggle to survive to get the things that we need.

GILES: Arizona's bill isn't the only one being considered. Republicans in Georgia are aiming to ban private grants there as well. Opponents say that unless the bills are paired with additional funding, there will be fewer opportunities to vote.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Giles in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "CRYSTAL SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.