Law & Principles

Ray Carter | March 9, 2022

Election ‘Zuckerbucks’ ban clears House

Ray Carter

Due to concern about perceived influence on the outcome of elections, state lawmakers have voted to ban private entities from funding Oklahoma election expenses.

House Bill 3046, by state Rep. Mark Lepak, creates the “Prohibit the Private Funding of Elections Act.”

The legislation makes it illegal for any government or election official to “solicit, take, or otherwise accept from any person, any contribution, donation, or anything else of value for purposes of conducting any election.”

Violations of the law would result in fines of $5,000 upon a first offense with subsequent offenses resulting in fines of up to $50,000 and up to five years in prison.

Lepak, R-Claremore, said the bill was about “trust in elections.”

“Do we want private dollars in the administration of our elections, and the possible influence that comes with them in the game, or do we want to simply say from a principled perspective, ‘This is a public function that we, the Legislature, should be appropriating funds for, and whatever it is we decide ought to go?’” Lepak said.

In the 2020 election cycle, an organization tied to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg provided roughly $350 million in grants to election systems across the country. The grants, sometimes called “Zuckerbucks,” proved controversial.

Although the funding was supposed to help address COVID-related emergency expenses in election systems, Lepak noted that was not how the money was actually spent and just 10 percent of funds nationwide went to COVID measures.

“The fact that the money was used to pay poll workers ought to raise some concerns for all of us,” Lepak said. “Public elections should be funded by public dollars.”

Moreover, a much higher share of funds was directed to Democrat-majority counties than Republican counties. Lepak noted Democratic counties received $5.80 per voter compared to $1.42 in Republican counties.

“If you were talking about use for PPE (personal protective equipment), you would see about the same cost per voter, would you not?” Lepak said.

Lepak also referenced a recent investigation in Wisconsin that concluded the use of the grant funds in that state violated “Wisconsin law prohibiting election bribery.”

In Oklahoma, $2.7 million in Zuckerberg-related funds was distributed to 43 of Oklahoma’s 77 county election boards.

Democratic lawmakers argued no problems were associated with Zuckerberg funds in Oklahoma and they served an important function.

Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, called the legislation “fundamentally unnecessary.”

“There was no other boogeyman out there,” Blancett said. “It just helped us accomplish an election in the best manner possible in the middle of one of our most significant health catastrophes this country has ever seen.”

“It’s unprecedented, the amount of private money that came into this election in 2020. That’s true,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City. “We’d never seen anything like it before. Also unprecedented was the pandemic that we were all dealing with and the myriad issues that that caused.”

Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, said the bill was “trying to address problems that don’t exist in our election system.”

HB 3046 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 79-18 vote that broke mostly along party lines. The bill now proceeds to the Oklahoma Senate.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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