Anthony Quintano from Honolulu, HI, United States / CC BY
Anthony Quintano from Honolulu, HI, United States / CC BY

Amid the extreme inequalities of a new Gilded Age and the COVID-19 pandemic, antipathy toward the super-rich has risen across the political spectrum. And there’s perhaps no billionaire more caught up in those headwinds than Mark Zuckerberg.

In the minds of many, Facebook’s founder has shown a prevaricating unwillingness to address the social network’s negative influences on society, especially concerning the spread of misinformation and extremism. Zuckerberg’s been labeled a threat to democracy, so it’s little wonder that a mixed reaction greeted the news that he and Priscilla Chan have kicked in $300 million to “promote safe and reliable voting during COVID-19.”

The commitment is a personal gift from the couple, with no involvement from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. It’s benefiting only two nonprofits: $250 million for the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), and the remaining $50 million for the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR). Both nonprofits will redistribute the money to state and local jurisdictions, which can then use it to improve election infrastructure ahead of November 3rd.

In a Facebook post about the gift, Zuckerberg wrote: “It is critical for our democracy that we all have confidence in the integrity and legitimacy of our elections, and that means having confidence that our country has the infrastructure to make sure every voter can make their voice heard.”

All too true, but the irony of Zuckerberg opining on electoral integrity and legitimacy is hard to miss. It’s also hard to miss the fact that here we have two private citizens supporting COVID-era election infrastructure through two organizations at a similar level as the entire federal government. The CARES Act, after all, allocated a mere $400 million for that purpose back in March.

An Exercise in Regranting

Taken for what it is, Chan and Zuckerberg’s commitment is obviously substantial, and it prompted acclaim from potential beneficiaries (Michigan’s secretary of state called it a “game-changer”) and from CTCL and CEIR themselves. But just what kind of work do CTCL and CEIR do, and what will this money do once it passes through them?

CTCL, which is receiving the lion’s share of the couple’s gift, is a fairly new election reform advocacy organization with a tech-oriented approach. Under the leadership of “civic technologist” Tiana Epps-Johnson, CTCL seeks to increase public access to information about elections and elected officials, often in partnership with tech firms like Facebook and Google. The organization also offers tools and trainings to election officials to improve their tech and communications skills.

CTCL’s supporters include several funders from tech and skew at least somewhat to the left, a profile that parallels Chan and Zuckerberg’s philanthropy. Backers include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and substantial commitments through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. This year, CTCL has also partnered with Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund to provide remote training to election officials, and received $1.5 million in core support from the Skoll Foundation.

The other recipient, CEIR, is newer, having launched in 2016. Founder David Becker, formerly head of the elections program at Pew Charitable Trusts, created the organization as a response to declining voter turnout rates and the threat of foreign intervention in U.S. contests. CEIR’s modus operandi is to work directly with election officials from both parties, helping them maintain accurate voter lists, address vulnerabilities to foreign meddling, and get reliable information to the voting public. Philanthropic supporters of note include the Hewlett Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

In CTCL’s case, the money is being regranted through an already-existing COVID-response program. Election offices receiving the funds may put them to a variety of uses, like maintaining in-person polling places and PPE for staff, expanding voter registration outreach efforts, recruiting and training poll workers, and supporting early voting and vote-by-mail. The CEIR money will go to offices of Secretaries of State (in both blue and red states, Zuckerberg said), to help them get the word out about when, where and how to vote.

Democratic Ends, Undemocratic Means

Laudable as all of that work is, Chan and Zuckerberg’s gift raises a bunch of questions. To begin with, there’s the obvious issue of motivation. Zuckerberg and the Facebook brand have been under fire lately, even running afoul of a corporate-led advertising boycott under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit (the campaign seems to have damaged Facebook’s reputation more than its bottom line).

Given the permissive approach Facebook has taken to misinformation, conspiracy theorizing and outright violent rhetoric, it’s no wonder prominent critics like Anand Giridharadas are reacting poorly. “You literally made that money imperiling our election and democracy,” Giridharadas wrote on Twitter in all caps. Meanwhile, former secretary of labor Robert Reich pointed to Zuckerberg’s $40 billion+ jump in net worth since the pandemic began. “That’s 136 times the $300 million donation he hopes will distract us from all the ways he’s allowed fascism and misinformation to erode our democracy,” Reich wrote.

If distraction is the objective, it’ll take a lot more than a few choice gifts to extract the Zuckerberg brand from its current public relations abyss. But at the very least, this gift won’t further complicate the situation over at CZI, where the founder’s problematic business model has fueled a drumbeat of discontent. Still, it seems that whatever Zuckerberg, Chan or the folks at CZI do in the philanthropic realm, redemption may be out of reach until things change at Facebook.

“One of the key ways voter suppression occurs is through disinformation and hate spread on sites like Facebook,” said Nicole Boucher, vice president of the progressive voter mobilization organization Way to Win, in an interview. “While the large investment is appreciated and can certainly be put to good use, I would like to see deeper commitment from Facebook—a company that has the power to ensure their platform fights against hate speech and voter suppression every day as we approach the election.”

Besides the donors themselves, another questionable aspect of this gift is the sheer quantity of resources being directed through just two nonprofits. Yes, the money will be redistributed and isn’t going toward programs at CTCL and CEIR themselves. But that’s still a vast degree of power to bestow upon just two organizations, and not particularly large ones, at that. This is no dig on CTCL and CEIR, but neither the donation nor the distribution of this immense chunk of democracy funding are happening very democratically.

Of course, democracy funding by democratic means is public sector funding, and that’s in short supply these days. “This will produce a lot of good, but it is no substitute for governmental funding needed in response to the current crisis. This gift is 62% of what the Congress provided in the [CARES Act],” Adam Ambrogi of the Democracy Fund wrote on Twitter.

To Democracy’s Rescue?

Less than a week before Chan and Zuckerberg announced their gift, a collaborative of democracy donors called One for Democracy reached $40 million in total funds raised, a milestone toward its $100 million goal. As we’ve reported, One for Democracy is centered on a pledge: Funders commit to give away at least 1% of their wealth to democracy causes. Pledgers are given the option to choose their own recipients or go through any of the four funds set up by One for Democracy, which distribute dollars to a few dozen nonprofits vetted by an advisory board of movement leaders.

Imagine for a second what it would mean if four or five of America’s richest billionaires took that pledge. For Chan and Zuckerberg, it would mean shelling out just over $700 million more on top of what they’ve given here. Add in another several billion from the likes of Bezos, Gates and the rest, and soon the total well exceeds the Brennan Center for Justice’s $4 billion estimate of what it would take to safeguard the election.

The point is that top philanthropists have more than enough to come to democracy’s rescue at a time when government appears unable to act. And that’s not to mention the legions of smaller funders (including folks with just a billion or two) already supporting campaigns like One for Democracy at a rising rate as November looms. One example is the modest Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation, which has now dedicated over 20% of its $88 million endowment to 2020 election preparedness and voter engagement.

Of course, that doesn’t get us past the problem of whether private interests should be the ones coming to democracy’s rescue. But in such an unusual time, perhaps the benefits outweigh the risks. In a Newsweek op-ed, Wendy Weiser and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf of the Brennan Center write, “We have reached an extraordinary point where we have no choice but to look to civil society—the business community and other private groups and organizations—to help fill the breach.” They go on to say that legal guardrails are in place to oversee gifts like Chan and Zuckerberg’s, and that, while far from ideal, private support may be the 2020 election’s only saving grace.

The deeper question, and one that will far outlast the 2020 election cycle, is whether philanthropic funders should be involved in democracy issues in the first place. Critics of such giving say it’s a thinly veiled effort to favor certain candidates. And commentators like Weiser, Weiss-Wolf and Ambrogi make it clear that government should be funding election infrastructure, and not private donors like Chan and Zuckerberg. Private funding this year should just be an emergency stopgap.

But what about things like voter engagement in underrepresented communities, or civic education? On one hand, that’s where philanthropy can play a more fitting and lasting role—not as a stopgap, but as a complement to public funding. On the other, it’s hard for any 501(c)(3) democracy funding to avoid the perception of partisan bias and undemocratic influence. Just as it is with this $300 million, so it goes with philanthropy and democracy at large: a mix of the good and the bad.

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