Election Access and Integrity
Updated June 26, 2021
Free and fair elections require both election access and integrity, as noted by Myrna Perez, Director of Voting Rights and Elections Program at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, in her August 2019 report "Election Integrity: A Pro-Voter Agenda."(1) Voter suppression disenfranchising legitimate voters as well as electoral fraud are both threats which can undermine the integrity of democracies.
Adapting the language of statistics, credible elections require both high sensitivity and specificity. In this context, sensitivity means that eligible voters who desire to vote are accurately represented in the voting tally: they are able to cast their votes without excessive difficulty or hardship. Specificity means that votes cast and counted accurately reflect individuals who are eligible and desire to do so: ineligible votes should be reliably detected and prevented from being counted. Both high sensitivity and specificity measures are needed for electoral legitimacy to ensure that election results accurately reflect the will of the people, and to warrant public confidence. Low electoral sensitivity may be associated with voter suppression, whereas low specificity may reflect electoral fraud.
Election Margins and Political Power
The “balance of power” in US elections has often been decided by relatively small margins. For example, Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election hinged on just three states won by a margin of 0.6% or less.(2) Donald Trump’s 2016 win over Hilary Clinton also reflected similarly small margins. In the English-speaking world, hundreds of elections have been decided by margins of less than 0.1% - many by only a few votes.(3) The Washington Post noted that at least four prior US presidential elections (five including the 2020 election) produced "contested outcomes and furious allegations of fraud."(4)
Some districts tend to reliably support candidates of one party or another. The winner of national elections however has depended historically on “swing votes” in “battleground states” and districts. The“winner take all” system (in contrast to “proportional representation”) of most US elections determines that the candidate with 50.01% of the vote wins an election, whereas the candidate with 49.99% of the vote loses. Supporters of the latter candidate receive no representation. This system incentivizes major parties to seek small advantages for their candidate, or to disadvantage opposing candidates, whether fairly or unfairly. Even a small number of fraudulent or suppressed votes may tip the balance of an election.
This essay will review allegations of controversial and unethical methods used by partisan activists to sway electoral results. Some of the tactics discussed may be illegal, whereas others may be technically legal in certain jurisdictions. Some may pertain to dubious grey areas which may not be legally punishable. However, the use by political operatives of tactics which may technically be legal to sway elections does not mean that such conduct is ethical, and may impugn election legitimacy and erode confidence. Exposing such tactics from across the political spectrum and bringing them into the sphere of public consciousness and discussion is thus a matter of public interest.
Deterring eligible voters through intimidation or supplying false information are forms of voter suppression. The Lawyer’s Committee of Civil Rights Under Law issued a July 2012 report detailing “Deceptive Election Practices and Voter Intimidation.”(5) Some examples cited by the group include flyers with bogus election rules (claiming, for instance, that those who voted in primaries could not vote in general elections), flyers advertising the wrong election date, fake “voter guides” erroneously implying that certain candidates were endorsed by the other party, and robocalls on election day providing false information to discourage turnout.
The group recommends legal requirements making it unlawful "to intentionally communicate or cause to communicate materially false information regarding the time, place, or manner of an election, or the qualifications for voter eligibility with the intent to prevent a voter from exercising the right to vote when the perpetrator knows the information is false," to provide a "private right of action" for individuals affected by such practices, and to require state attorneys general to "investigate all claims of deceptive voter practices," "use all effective measures to provide correct election information to affected votes," and to refer violations for prosecution. The United States Justice Department has increasingly prioritized allegations of voter suppression.
Election Funding by Private Entities
Funding of public elections by private entities has raised concerns of conflicts of interest and manipulation of elections by outside actors. Private grants for public elections run afoul of many state laws and longstanding precedent requiring public election funding to be allocated by state legislatures and in an equitable fashion. Private organizations funding public elections, it is alleged, violate such requirements by boosting selected jurisdictions at the expense of others while sidestepping safeguards and supervision. It is claimed that allowing unaccountable, undemocratic third-party groups to select areas for massive funding makes them kingmakers of the American political system.
While 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundations are prohibited by the terms of their tax-exempt status from intervening on behalf of political candidates, such organizations are alleged to have “put their thumb on the scale” of American elections by selectively areas to boost favored candidates at the expense of others. Capital Research Center’s Walter Scott noted that the such conduct is a “murky area” of law which warrants further investigation.(6)
Facebook founder and political leftist Mark Zuckerberg donated $350 million to “election administration” in 2020 through the allegedly “non-partisan” group Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). The nonpartisan watchdog Influence Watch notes that CTCL “pushes for left-of-center voting policies and election administration. It has a wide reach into local elections offices across the nation and is funded by many left-of-center funding organizations.”(7) A partisan political organization exerting strong influence on election offices nationwide poses severe conflicts of interest. Even the leftist New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel noted concerns:
“The prospect of election administrators tapping large pools of private money has raised new legal and political questions. That is partly because it is unusual for elections to be subsidized by nongovernment funding at this level, but also because most of the cash is coming from nonprofit groups that have liberal ties, and the biggest source of the cash, Mr. Zuckerberg, has drawn fire from across the political spectrum.”(8)
Vogel went on to quote Thomas More Society lawyer Erick Kardaal, who stated that Zuckerberg’s grants could “undermine, over time, the way we view elections” and could lead to a situation in which “one group of billionaires will own this city, and one group of billionaires will own that city.” Nicholas Riccardi of the left-leaning Associated Press observed:
“The cash comes with a new set of questions about donor transparency, motivations and the influence of groups and figures that are not democratically accountable...Conservatives note the Democratic origins of CTCL and that its donations have predominantly been in areas where Democrats depend on votes.”(9)
CTCL provided additional grants for the Georgia Senate runoff elections in January 2021. The impact of the disproportionate election funding by the CTCL and other left-leaning groups to areas demographically supporting their favored candidates were considerable.(6) One report noted:
“Most of Joe Biden’s 221,751 vote margin gain in Georgia, compared to Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016, came from three metropolitan Atlanta counties that received more than $15 million from the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) “safe elections” project. Those three counties — Cobb, Fulton, and Gwinnett–accounted for 168,703 of Biden’s 221,751 vote margin gain, or 76 percent.”(10)
A government watchdog, the Foundation for Government Accountability, found that “the election outcomes in Georgia, one of the most pivotal states in November — and again in the state's two U.S. Senate runoffs in January — may have been significantly affected by a total of $45 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan….Grant money in Georgia and across the country was heavily weighted toward Democratic-leaning counties. While billed as election safety grants during the coronavirus pandemic, only a small portion in any of the states the foundation examined was used for personal protective equipment.”(11) The foundation’s report noted:
“Zuckerbucks counties in the Biden column were granted nearly four times as many Zuckerbucks per registered voter than were Zuckerbucks counties won by Trump…Not only did Biden counties rake in the big bucks, but they were generally more likely to receive any Zuckerbucks at all. In fact, nearly 50 percent of counties that voted for Biden received Zuckerbucks, compared to approximately 20 percent of counties that voted for Trump...
“On average, as a share of the two-party vote, most Georgia counties moved to the left by less than one percentage point between 2016 and 2020.14 But counties that did not receive any Zuckerbucks barely budged at all—while Zuckerbucks counties swung by, on average, 2.3 percentage points towards Biden, suggesting these counties carried the state’s leftward shift.”(12)
Foundation for Government Accountability president Tarren Bragdon stated:
"The Zuckerberg funding is an unprecedented example of using government employees and government resources to put your finger on the scale, to affect the election outcome. It would be like giving private money to police departments to have officers do more stop and frisk in certain neighborhoods compared to other neighborhoods. It would be like giving money to the tax department to do increased audits in certain zip codes or neighborhoods versus other neighborhoods.
"They will talk about most of the counties that got money had fewer than 25,000 people or that X percent of counties were Republican counties," Bragdon said. "But the key here is to follow the money. And the money went disproportionately to Democratic counties. In Georgia, more than 90 percent of the money went to those Democrat counties. And you could see from the spending per registered voter that it was not proportionate at all.
“This had nothing to do with COVID and had everything to do with using government resources and government employees to play politic.”(11)
J. Christian Adams of the conservative outlet PJ media noted the impact of CTCL donations: “Hundreds of millions of private charitable dollars flowed into key urban county election offices in battleground states. The same private philanthropic largess did not reach red counties. Urban counties were able to revolutionize government election offices into Joe Biden turnout machines.”(13) He wrote:
“What these [$350 million Zuckerberg] grants did was build structural bias into the 2020 election where structural bias matters most – in densely populated urban cores. It converted election offices in key jurisdictions with deep reservoirs of Biden votes into Formula One turnout machines. The hundreds of millions of dollars built systems, hired employees from activist groups, bought equipment and radio advertisements. It did everything that street activists could ever dream up to turn out Biden votes if only they had unlimited funding.”
Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry warned local officials not to accept outside grants and filed suit, warning of the “corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials.”(14). Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin stated: “When we realized there were potential ethical issues with accepting the grant money, we consulted with the attorney general and subsequently advised clerks to reject any grant money awards.”
In 2021, Arizona and Georgia passed bills which would ban private money to administer elections, and several other states including Florida, Kansas, and Idaho were either considering such legislation or had sent bills to the governor for signature.(15) Remaining donations may influence future elections. (16) Some other states have embraced private funding, fueling persistent concerns regarding election integrity.
Daniel Greenfield of the Freedom Center wrote that "The common denominator with [Stacey Abrams’] Fair Fight and CTCL is that both set out to alter the structural electoral environment, rather than just throwing money at ads."(11) As acknowledged in a Time Magazine exposé celebrating these tactics, tech oligarchs and companies who colluded to influence elections also worked to boost favored narratives and suppress dissent in social media and the press.(17)
1. Perez, Myrna. "Election Integrity: A Pro-Voter Agenda." Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, 2017. https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Report_Election_Integrity.pdf
2. Kaster, Carolyn. “Biden’s Electoral College win was narrow in the tipping-point state; Labor surges in Victoria.” The Conversation, November 15, 2020. https://theconversation.com/bidens-electoral-college-win-was-narrow-in-the-tipping-point-state-labor-surges-in-victoria-150143
3. “List of close election results.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_close_election_results (accessed March 29, 2021).
4. Mitchell, Robert. "Disputed presidential elections: A guide to 200 years of ballot box ugliness." Washington Post, September 28, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/09/28/stolen-disputed-presidential-elections-trump/
5. "Deceptive Election Practices and Voter Intimidation." Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, July 2012. https://lawyerscommittee.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/DeceptivePracticesReportJuly2012FINALpdf.pdf
6. Scott, Walter. "Georgia Election Officials, a Billionaire, and the 'Nonpartisan' Center for Tech & Civic Life." Capital Research, November 27, 2020. https://capitalresearch.org/article/center-for-tech-civic-life/
7. "Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL)." InfluenceWatch.org.
https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/center-for-tech-and-civic-life/ (accessed May 1, 2021).
8. Vogel, Kenneth P. "Short of Money to Run Elections, Local Authorities Turn to Private Funds." New York Times, September 25, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/25/us/politics/elections-private-grants-zuckerberg.html
9. Riccardi, Nicholas. "‘Not Plan A’: Charities are stepping up to pay for elections." AP News, September 16, 2020. https://apnews.com/article/technology-elections-denver-mark-zuckerberg-election-2020-92257bbc1fefd9ed0e18861e5b5913f6
10. Greenfield, Daniel. "Democrats Had a Plan for Georgia, Republicans Didn't." Tennessee Eagle Forum, December 7, 2020. https://www.tneagleforum.org/blog_direct_link.cfm?blog_id=66531
11. Lucas, Fred. “Zuckerberg’s $45M for Georgia elections boosted Dem turnout, watchdog report says.” Fox News, June 4, 2021. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/zuckerbergs-45m-boosted-dem-turnout
12. Dublois, Hayden, and Tyler Lamensky. “Zuckerberg Went Down to Georgia: How Zuckerbucks Influenced the Georgia Elections.” The Foundation for Government Accountability, May 24, 2021 https://thefga.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/How-Zuckerbucks-Influenced-the-Georgia-Elections.pdf
13. Adams, J. Christian. "The Real Kraken: What Really Happened to Donald Trump in the 2020 Election." PJ Media, December 2, 2020. https://pjmedia.com/jchristianadams/2020/12/02/the-real-kraken-what-really-happened-to-donald-trump-in-the-2020-election-n1185494
14. Karlin, Sam. "Mark Zuckerberg-funded free election grants draw ire of Jeff Landry, who files suit." The Advocate (Louisiana), October 7, 2020. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/politics/elections/article_e59425a0-08a2-11eb-9757-cba83bb12048.html
15. Lucas, Fred. “States pursuing laws to curb Zuckerberg spending on elections.” Fox News, April 22, 2021. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/states-laws-zuckerberg-spending-on-elections
16. Lucas, Fred. “Zuckerberg money could affect DeSantis reelection campaign.” Fox News, April 29, 2021. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/zuckerberg-money-florida-desantis-reelection
17. Ball, Molly. “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election.” Time, 4 February 2021. https://time.com/5936036/secret-2020-election-campaign/