Election workers fear the loss of private grants now barred by a new bill

Georgia election workers fear the loss of private grants.
Published: Apr. 28, 2023 at 12:21 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Walking through the winding corridors of the Douglas County Elections Office, elections director Milton Kidd stops in front of a large black apparatus that looks like a desktop computer.

“This is what’s called a UPS – a universal power source,” he explains. “This UPS weighs 67 pounds. We have lost poll workers, we have lost facilities because these UPS’ are heavy for our poll workers.”

The universal power sources keep elections software up and running in the event of power outages at precincts, Kidd says. He’s made attempts to buy new ones, but it isn’t a cheap proposition.

“We were looking at ways to get a lighter UPS, but this particular universal power source costs $500,” he says. “Right now the county has 150 and we have 46 that need to be replaced. These are those things that are costs people don’t think about.”

From equipment maintenance and poll workers to the lesser-known expenses like ink cartridges by the hundreds and even cleaning supplies for precincts – there is a lot that goes into the finances of a well-run election.

Portions of it, Kidd says, relied on private grant funding that Senate Bill 222 made illegal above the amount of a few hundred dollars. The new law – technically an expansion of a 2021 law – now makes it a felony to directly accept those donations, punishable by up to a year in prison.

“This is making elections less safe,” said Kidd. “You don’t have the resources needed to do a lot of the activities to stay up to date on the maintenance of your equipment, to replace equipment as it’s damaged.”

Kidd notes that to his knowledge, elections offices are the only state entity barred from receiving private grant funds.

“The state feels we’ll have an undue pressure based off of grants,” he said. “My response to that and my question to that is, there are agencies that make life and death decisions such as the police force, the sheriff’s department. But those agencies are still able to get grant funds.”

If Kidd and his fellow elections directors can’t get supplemental funding through grants, he’s urging the legislature to make up the difference instead of counties having to pass the burden off to taxpayers.

“We live in a state that is now blocking the administration of elections through grant funds, all at the same time, while allocating no money to elections offices,” he said. “If the state chooses to block counties’ ability to not be a burden on their local tax base, then allocate funds to those offices.”

The bill’s passing follows a wider, nationwide trend of local lawmakers blocking privatized donations for the purpose of running elections. The bills are known as “Zuckerbucks” bills – a reference to large donations made in 2020 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to various voting groups.

But Kidd notes that Georgia also receives grant funding from conservative groups as well, like the Arnold Schwarzenegger Institute.

“No one will accuse Arnold Schwarzenegger of being any liberal bastion,” said Kidd. “But his organization as well as many conservative organizations did give money to counties throughout the state of Georgia.”

Republican lawmakers who signed the bill say it’s a move toward election safety.

“It didn’t seem that it was fair that one county would get something, and the other counties would not,” said Rep. Ben Watson, (R - Savannah). “So all we did was make it so that it would be fair and equitable through the state Boards of Elections. So any grants could still come through there.”

Back in his office, Kidd says all elections directors are trying to do is make sure “the trains arrive on time,” he said. He also notes that the same election that triggered this news yielded huge GOP wins in the state, including the governor’s mansion and the offices of the Secretary of State and Attorney General.

He’s left wondering how he’s going to make up the lost funds when his office and many others are already running on fumes, and why they’re being targeted in the first place.

“Any time you take money out of a system, the money that was spent has to come from somewhere,” he said. “So what was the plan from the legislature to fund elections with the removal of these funds?”

“That’s what you address with the state elections board and that’s what you address with your county commissioners and that’s what you address locally,” said Sen. Watson, when asked. “That’s the way it’s always been done.”