PHOENIX -- Raising the specter of Mark Zuckerberg influencing who holds office in Arizona, Republican lawmakers moved Monday to block counties from taking money from any private source to help run future elections.
The party-line vote by the Senate Government Committee on House Bill 2569 follows the disclosure that nine Arizona counties got more than $6 million last year from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. Jennifer Marson, executive director for the Arizona Association of Counties, said the grants were to help defray some of the costs of running an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms. Marson pointed out to legislators that four of the nine counties had Republican majorities, four had more Democrats and voter registration is close to evenly split in Maricopa County. And in each case, she said, the grants, including how the money would be spent, were approved by county supervisors.
But former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who is now heading the Capital Research Center, said that doesn't prove anything.
Mr. Walker, whose organization that says it studies unions, environmental groups and nonprofit and "activist'' groups, said Republicans did better in turnout in 2020 than prior years in the six counties that didn't get CTCL grants.
"But in funded counties, Democratic turnout rocketed upward,'' he said. "Funding a county helps Democrats almost twice as much as it helps Republicans.''
More to the point, he said in those nine funded counties, Democrats beat Republicans by close to 122,000 votes, far more than the 10,457-vote edge that Joe Biden had statewide over Donald Trump.
But in the nine counties that got the money, Democrat turnout in 2020 "rocketed'' to far higher levels than what they were in prior election cycles.
"And that's not just the case here,'' Mr. Walker said, saying that counties in other states where CTCL grants were given "miraculously performed enormously better for Democrats than counties that did not receive funding.''
Aimee Yentes, lobbyist for the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which tends to support Republican causes, said that's no accident: CTCL reported that $400 million came from Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
"There's no mystery about his political leanings,'' she said. "We've seen these biases infiltrate his social media platform and the curation of content, in filtering of conservative messages and outright bans of individuals with opposing political opinions.''
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said the grants in each case were aimed at funding election administration. For example, he said, CTCL said it was financing drop boxes, drive-thru voting, renting and cleaning new polling places and equipment for handling mail-in ballots.
"They aren't saying, 'You should vote one way or the other,' '' Sen. Quezada said. "They aren't saying that one group is correct, one group is not.''
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said he's surprised Democrats are OK with these outside grants.
"If this model of influence sort of works out in one party's favor in one instance, the other party's going to be right back at it the next time using the same tools,'' he said. "And this will cascade into a brand new way that outside influence, particularly from extremely wealthy people, can very covertly, influence our elections.''
Sen. Quezada said the real story is more complex.
He said it starts with the lies that are told about how the election was mishandled, how the election was "stolen'' and how they can't be administered fairly.
"And then we turned around and denied that funding to our local governments,'' Sen. Quezada said.
But he did say the supporters of the legislation are right on one point: More money on voter education does influence turnout.
"When more people vote, the people with weak policy arguments lose,'' Sen. Quezada said.
Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said there are larger issues here.
"Would we be OK if that money came from Russia or any other hostile country, or not hostile?'' she asked, such as Canada. "If we wouldn't be OK with international contributions to our elections, why should we be OK if it's a millionaire or a billionaire?''
The measure, which already has cleared the House, now goes to the full Senate.
This isn't the first time Republican interests have argued that Mr. Zuckerberg influenced the results of the 2020 election.
A lawsuit filed last December in Maricopa County Superior Court challenged the results of the presidential election saying the money from the Facebook billionaire deliberately skewed the vote here for Biden.
Attorney David Spilsbury, representing four Arizona residents who identified themselves as members of something called the Arizona Election Integrity Association, said Mr. Zuckerberg's money was designed to created a "two-tiered treatment of the American voter,'' putting funds into "progressive strongholds'' to turn out more voters.
But Spilsbury dropped the lawsuit after the Secretary of State's office said the lawsuit was without legal merit and threatened to pursue legal fees and sanctions against him.