The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nonprofit pledges $80 million for local election administration

Mail-in ballots are sorted in West Chester, Pa., in October 2020. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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A previous version of this article misreported how many initiatives debuted through the Audacious Project at TED 2022. Nine such initiatives debuted at the event. The article has been corrected.

The founder of a nonprofit that has become a target of Republican ire for funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to election administrators in 2020 announced this week that her organization will spearhead a similar new effort starting this year.

Tiana Epps-Johnson, who leads the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), said Monday evening that the new U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence would send $80 million in the next five years to election departments across the United States in need of basic funding for equipment replacement and other resources.

“The United States election infrastructure is crumbling,” Epps-Johnson announced in a speech at the TED conference this week in Vancouver.

“Election officials who serve millions of voters lack the basic technology they need to reliably do their work,” she said. “It either doesn’t exist or it’s shockingly outdated.”

The group’s efforts in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic threatened to throw the presidential election into chaos, helped administrators manage record turnout with relatively few hiccups — but have also sparked heavy backlash from Republicans who have focused on the role Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, took in financing that work.

Two years later, that money is gone and Zuckerberg and Chan have declined to send any more to election departments.

But while the pandemic has ebbed, it has not disappeared, and new challenges have arisen, including rising security threats, supply chain disruptions and escalating costs for basic materials such as paper ballots, which have gone up by as much as 50 percent around the country, according to some estimates.

On top of that, Republicans have balked at a Democratic proposal in Congress to pump $5 billion into election administration in the coming year’s federal budget. The funding is in President Biden’s budget proposal but needs bipartisan support to survive. A bipartisan spending bill passed last month contained only $75 million for election grants.

Sparked by backlash to Zuckerberg and Chan’s donations, 16 GOP-controlled state legislature have banned private funding of elections, with many supporters claiming that Zuckerberg’s involvement revealed a partisan effort to channel funding to Democratic cities.

In Virginia, for example, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) announced on conservative talk radio in late January that he would replace the state elections director, Chris Piper, after the host, John Fredericks, claimed that the state election office had been “deeply infiltrated” by “partisan, left-wing nonprofits” — an apparent reference to the CTCL grants.

Piper, who learned of his impending dismissal from the broadcast, said in an interview at the time that his office did not accept any money from the nonprofit and that the vast majority of the grants that came to Virginia went to Republican counties that voted for Trump.

According to CTCL’s website, the program was grant-based and optional, and it distributed funds to nearly 2,500 election offices in 49 states, with the majority of grants going to smaller communities.

Meanwhile, election officials and voting experts are now warning that as the midterm elections get underway, new funding is needed to avoid significant problems in November.

In her TED talk, Epps-Johnson noted that election resources are designated critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security, putting it “on par with things like the power grid and water supply.”

Yet counties spend half of 1 percent of their budgets on elections, she added — about the same proportion as they spend on parking facilities.

“In 2020, we supported an election department in a small New England town replace their hand crank ballot boxes they had been using to count votes since the early 1900s,” she said. “One was literally held together by duct tape.”

The U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence is a nonpartisan collaborative bringing together election officials, designers and technology experts to support U.S. elections. It is led by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, and its partners include the Center for Civic Design, the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, the Elections Group, Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, the Prototyping Systems Lab at the University of California at Davis and U.S. Digital Response.

Its funding comes through the Audacious Project, a TED initiative that brings together social entrepreneurs with private donors. The alliance was one of nine such initiatives debuted Monday at TED 2022.