The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia proves election integrity is a bipartisan issue

Bob Meurer waits for voters in the Democratic primary election at the Lucketts Community Center in Lucketts, Va, on June 8. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Trevor Carlsen is a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

Who says election integrity is a partisan issue? Virginia is poised to enact a bipartisan ban on private funding for public elections, a disturbing phenomenon that took place in 2020. Legislation to that effect unanimously passed the Democratic-controlled state Senate this year and cleared the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. It should help reinforce Virginia voters’ trust in the ballot box and prevent out-of-state billionaires from tilting electoral outcomes one way or the other.

The Virginia bill comes on the heels of the more than $400 million that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated to state and local election officials in the 2020 election cycle. This funding was unprecedented and inappropriate. Election administration has always been paid for by taxpayers to ensure transparency, accountability and, above all else, public trust in elections. Private funding circumvents those safeguards — and, sure enough, in Virginia and nationwide, it raised legitimate and serious concerns.

Virginia received nearly $4 million, which was routed through a third-party nonprofit. Though the money was supposed to ensure “safe and reliable voting” during the pandemic, there was essentially no oversight. More than one-quarter of Virginia’s 133 localities received money, yet they had limited reporting obligations and were seemingly free from state oversight.

The Foundation for Government Accountability submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to many of the Virginia localities known to have received these grants. We found that less than 1 percent was spent on personal protective equipment (PPE). Smyth County didn’t spend the money on the 2020 election at all and instead received approval to buy furniture and a copier after the 2020 election was over. Fairfax County, which received more private election money than any other jurisdiction in Virginia, reported spending exactly zero dollars on PPE. Instead, grant dollars were largely spent on temporary staffing support, election administration equipment and absentee voting.

And that is the problem. When election jurisdictions receive private funding, they can engage in activities that affect voters. Though there’s no problem with helping people vote, there is a huge problem when some jurisdictions get to run their elections on a private party’s dime while other areas get left behind. Fairfax County is overwhelmingly blue, with most Democratic candidates receiving between 60 and 70 percent of the vote in 2020. Private election funding in an area such as Fairfax could have increased turnout compared with areas that didn’t receive such funding or received smaller grant amounts.

More than 80 percent of this funding went to just six Virginia localities, all of which voted blue on election night. Though several Republican-leaning areas also received money, it didn’t go nearly as far. Localities that voted for Joe Biden received nearly twice as many dollars per registered voter as those that voted for Donald Trump. Such a wide discrepancy only increases the likelihood that Democratic turnout unfairly increased on Election Day.

Virginia’s election results are not in question, with Biden having won by more than 10 percentage points. Yet the 2020 grant program is still highly questionable, along with all private election funding. There’s now a precedent for out-of-state billionaires giving large sums of money to select areas, making future elections susceptible to actions that are, frankly, undemocratic.

What’s to stop a Kentucky coal magnate from dumping millions of dollars into Southwest Virginia, potentially driving up the Republican vote? What’s to stop a New York trial lawyer from pouring massive sums of money into Northern Virginia, possibly leading to even deeper-blue election outcomes?

Neither Republicans nor Democrats want that to happen, as Virginia’s pending ban on private election funding proves. Just as lawmakers wouldn’t allow private parties to fund more police stops in certain neighborhoods or more tax audits on certain business types, they’re set to block anyone but the government from paying for election administration. It’s a basic principle of democratic fairness.

The bill is through the General Assembly, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is expected to sign it soon. The commonwealth will join more than 10 states that have made the same move. Virginians should be the only ones paying for Virginia’s elections, and they should be confident that no one is unjustly influencing the outcome. That’s a standard both parties can rally behind — because defending democracy is a bipartisan cause.