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FEC unanimously rejects complaints about Zuckerberg’s 2020 election grants

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/8/2022 Isaac Stanley-Becker
Mark Zuckerberg during the virtual Facebook Connect event in 2021. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg © Michael Nagle/Bloomberg Mark Zuckerberg during the virtual Facebook Connect event in 2021. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

A unanimous bipartisan vote this summer by the Federal Election Commission has undercut fantastical claims about Mark Zuckerberg’s role in the 2020 election that have taken hold among GOP leaders, candidates and activists decrying “Zuckerbucks.”

The claims originate in the more than $400 million donated in fall 2020 by Zuckerberg, the chief executive and founder of Meta, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to a pair of nonprofits that provided grants aiding state and local governments with election administration in light of the challenges posed by the coronavirus.

The couple touted the contributions at the time, saying, “Inadequate public funds and a global pandemic have led to unprecedented challenges for election administrators throughout the country, and we are doubling down on our commitment to ensuring that every qualified jurisdiction has the resources it needs to allow every eligible citizen to vote safely and have their vote counted.”

The grants, dispatched to blue and red areas of the country alike, were used to buy masks and plexiglass dividers, among other tools designed to keep voters and elections officials safe.

The funding from Zuckerberg, however, soon became kindling for the firestorm unleashed by former president Donald Trump and his allies as they questioned the legitimacy of the Nov. 3, 2020, vote.

The issue flared up in Republican primaries this year, with candidates trading accusations of having accepted “Zuckerbucks.” Numerous states banned election administrators from accepting private donations for voting-related expenses.

“Big tech’s efforts to undermine the integrity of our elections has no place in our country, and I’m proud to have signed legislation that ensures Alabama’s election process remains airtight,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said in the spring.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) said he was “very proud of having banned ‘Zuckerbucks’ in the state of Florida,” according to a local NBC affiliate.

And Trump, at his rally over the weekend in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said, “No more fake drop boxes by Zuckerberg and these people, no private money pouring into local election offices.”

The move against private funding of election administration has remained primarily a GOP cause, but it did gain a measure of bipartisan support in Virginia and a handful of other states.

Meanwhile, the contributions gave rise to numerous complaints before the FEC. Among the allegations were that Zuckerberg and Chan had made excess contributions in violation of federal campaign finance law and that one of the nonprofits they funded had failed to register as a political committee.

The regulator rejected those claims in a series of 6-0 votes — a show of unity by the commissioners, who are split evenly by party. The votes took place in July, and attorneys for Zuckerberg and Chan were notified of the decisions in an Aug. 8 letter that was made public Thursday.

An analysis by the FEC found that the “nexus between the donations and any purpose to influence the 2020 election is speculative at best.” The grants, the regulator noted, “were widely awarded across jurisdictions.”

Michael Toner, a GOP election lawyer and former FEC commissioner who was retained by Zuckerberg and Chan to review how the resources were distributed, found that of the jurisdictions that received funding, more had historically favored Republicans than had favored Democrats, said Brian Baker, a spokesman for the couple.

“The FEC’s unanimous bipartisan 6-0 decision confirms that the donations from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan to help support voting in 2020 during the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic were apolitical and intended only to ensure that all Americans could vote safely and have their vote counted,” said Baker, a longtime Republican strategist. The donations, he said, “were made in full compliance with the law to two nonpartisan organizations that helped cities and states ensure that residents could vote regardless of their party or candidate preference.”

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